Arnold Schwarzenegger

the sky is falling!

I’m using for my title a well-known phrase; it is, in fact, the frightened cry of a certain Chicken Little.  There are many variations to the story, but they all begin with an acorn—an acorn which comes plunging from far above and whacks Chicken Little (plop!) on the top of her head.  She panics, “The sky is falling!  I must go tell the king!”


So off goes Chicken Little, encountering along the way such individuals as Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey—not to mention the infamous Foxy Loxy, who’s more than happy to help Chicken Little, while licking his chops at the sight of all those birds.

Luke 21 might have us thinking that Chicken Little was onto something.  The description of “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” sounds like everything’s coming apart.  This may be just me, but if you notice the paranoia that so often surrounds us, you’ll see that some people already think the sky is falling.  Maybe some of us feel that way!

We are well into Advent.  Advent is as much about the second coming of Jesus as it is about his first—as the baby in Bethlehem.  The idea of a returning messiah has appeared in various religions and mythologies all over the world.

For example, there was the Aztec belief that the god Quetzalcoatl would someday return to them.  When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, many thought their hope had been realized.  He had come from the east—from the sea—just as Quetzalcoatl was supposed to do, and it happened on the same date as Quetzalcoatl was to appear.  However, when the Spanish started killing the Aztecs, it became pretty clear that Cortés was not their savior!

I should add this story has now largely been considered a fabrication.  But it is a great story!

We’re looking at part of a passage that goes back to verse 5, as some folks are “ooh-ing and ah-ing” over how beautiful the temple is.  I don’t suppose many of us have ever been in a temple.  Banu and I have been inside the model of a temple.  There’s a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville—a really impressive structure—complete with a 42-foot-tall statue of the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena.


In the scripture, Jesus proceeds to pour cold water on the admiration of the temple.  He tells those who are simply breathless over its beauty that “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 6).  Not one stone will be left upon another.  (Note to self: do not hire him as a tour guide!)

The first part of today’s reading, verses 25 to 28, actually may have people saying, “The sky is falling!”  Besides disturbances in the heavens, there’s a reference to what’s happening on earth.  Confusion will be caused “by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (v. 25).  The sea and the waves are symbols of chaos.  “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” (v. 26).  We’re looking at some scary stuff.

I suppose many generations could identify with this.  Case in point: in the mid-fourteenth century, a pandemic of bubonic and pneumonic plague (alias the Black Death) swept through Europe, killing about one-third of the population.  It was commonly believed the end of the world was at hand.

These last three years might have stirred up similar feelings.

Despite all of that, we aren’t to do imitations of Chicken Little.  Verse 28 says “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads.”  Stand up and raise your heads—even if it seems like the sky is falling.  Why are we to do that?  “Because your redemption is drawing near.”  That’s the response of the faithful: those who look for the Lord’s return, as opposed to those who pay no attention to such things.


The second part of the passage, verses 29 to 33, is a parable taken from nature.  Besides the image of the fig tree, Luke includes “all the trees,” since his audience includes those not familiar with fig trees.  When they sprout leaves, summer is near.  In the same way, when the signs of the preceding verses appear, the kingdom of God is near.

Here’s a question.  Has there ever been a time when people did not see these things?  That would seem to suggest—and this can be found elsewhere in the New Testament—the kingdom of God is always at hand.  When we consider the kingdoms of Christ and Caesar, the difference in the two isn’t a matter of location.  Both are always with us.  Instead, it’s a difference in worldviews—a difference in vision.

The third part contains warnings.  They seem to question the way most of us live our lives.  Verse 34 says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”

In his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, Eugene Peterson put it this way:  “But be on your guard.  Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.”  What’s his deal?  He’s like Arnold Schwarzeneggar in Kindergarten Cop: “I’m the party pooper.”

Bruce Prewer spoke of those who, in effect, only recognize the first advent of Jesus by wanting to ignore the season of Advent and race ahead to Christmas. “If you don’t believe in the Final Coming of Christ,” he says, “then I suggest that you don’t really believe in the first coming of this True Child of God. They are inseparable as thunder and lightning…  If they are not inseparably linked in our faith, our Christmas activities are in danger of becoming a sentimental excursion into fantasy…

“Unless we see Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the One who will certainly come again, then Advent and Christmas can be a brief sentimental diversion; time out from the hard suffering and desperation of this world.  It may offer a bit of temporary escapism.  But mere tinselled sentiment will not provide a liberation for anxious souls who fear they are living in doomsday times.”[1]

The world doesn’t need the church to mimic its empty portrayal of Christmas.  The world needs the church to be the church.  What I mean is: the world needs the church to show that there is a better way.  Too often, it is the reverse!

One way to put these thoughts into a question—and if you haven’t figured this out by now—I like to ask questions.  Probably much more important than having the right answer is asking the right question.  So, what does it mean, in Advent 2022, to wait for the Lord?

Verse 36 gives the warning, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”  The New Jerusalem Bible renders that last phrase as “to hold your ground before the Son of Man.”  How do we hold our ground?


the line must be drawn herrre!

What does it mean to be alert?  Or how about this: how do we look for the second advent of Jesus, even when the sky is falling?

There are probably as many different ways the sky can fall as there are people.  Disaster need not happen on a public scale, with many witnesses.  The sky can fall, as we all know, in our own lives.  That only underlines the need to encourage each other in the faith, to strive to see Christ in others.

The Bible says we are to pray for the strength to escape what causes us to say, “The sky is falling!”  We are to pray for the strength to stand before the Son of Man.

“The Son of Man”: in simple terms, it means “human being.”  To the extent that we imitate Christ, to the same extent we become human.  Christ is the new Adam—the human of the new creation.

That touches on a key aspect of Christmas itself.  There is the reality of incarnation, literally, “in the flesh.”  It is God being embodied, appearing as a human—that is, as the baby of Bethlehem.  The uncreated revealed as the created.  It imparts a limitless affirmation of who we are as humans.  The sanctification of matter, of physicality, presents us as children of God.


the pillars of creation

Holding our ground before the Son of Man is an acknowledgment of, and celebration of, the great gift of being born as human, and what’s more, adoption into the family of God.  It’s a great gift even when we feel like the sky is falling.



warm up the celebration

It might seem strange to use Matthew 24 as one of the readings for World Communion Sunday.  This snippet of scripture portrays wars, famines, earthquakes, torture, betrayal, people being led astray.  What kind of communion is that?  Actually, this might be a good description of our world!

This comes right after Jesus’ disciples are “oohing” and “ahhing” at the beauty of the temple.  In his gospel, Luke adds “how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God” (21:5).  So how does Jesus respond to his starry-eyed friends?  He asks, “You see all these, do you not?  Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 2).

What a party pooper.

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"I'm the party pooper"

But he wasn’t wrong.  In the year 70, fed up with the constant rebellion of the Jews, the Romans rolled in and destroyed the temple.

(Here’s a quick note.  Actually, anything we humans build will eventually disappear.  This building we’re in right now will eventually crumble to the ground.  We are in a doomed structure!  And that word “structure” has one than one meaning.)

Still, the reason I picked this passage for today comes in verse 12: “And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.”  Back when I started reading the Bible in earnest—when I became a Christian while in college—that really jumped out at me.  It still really speaks to me.  The love of many will grow cold.  Love growing cold—that’s not a very pleasant thought!

It’s not a very lovely thought for World Communion Sunday, is it?  In some ways, it might be true of us today.  Love is growing cold.

Having said that, it’s also true that actual witch hunts rarely happen anymore.  People are not routinely burned at the stake.  And then there are stories from the 1600s of Presbyterians and others in their dealings with Baptists, who do not believe in infant baptism.  They decided to help the Baptists and grant their wish.  Since Baptists believed they needed to be baptized again, they were bound with heavy stones and tossed into the river.  Here’s your baptism!  (Still, I cannot confirm the accuracy of those reports!)

2 lmIn any case, there are some things one hopes we have left behind.  One hopes we aren’t put to the test if our civilization were to come crashing down!

A time when people were put to such a test was when the Babylonians invaded Judea.  The nation was under military occupation, with hundreds and thousands sent into forced deportation—the Babylonian exile.  The invaders destroyed the original temple, as the Romans did the second temple centuries later.

According to the book of Lamentations, during the siege of Jerusalem, food began to run out.  Apparently, some even resorted to cannibalism.[1]

The part of the book we usually focus on is in chapter 3, verses 19 to 24.  We do see the author acknowledging the dire straits.  “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!  My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me” (vv. 19-20).  The grim reality is recognized.  “But this I call to mind.”  We’re turning a corner.  There’s a light in the darkness.  “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (vv. 21-22).  Even in the depths of despair, hope is still alive.

In verse 23—the mercies of the Lord “are new every morning; great is your faithfulness”—we have the inspiration of that great hymn of the church.  And for those who didn’t know the Biblical origin of “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” here it is.  It comes from a time when civilized society has collapsed.  Even when we humans screw up on a colossal scale, God is still faithful.

(Who knows?  If our civilization collapses, maybe some wise person will be inspired and pen lyrics to encourage those who come after.)

3 lmOur poet proclaims, “‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (v. 24).  Unfortunately, the struggle continues.  A few verses later, he says, “When all the prisoners in a country are crushed underfoot, when human rights are overridden in defiance of the Most High, when someone is cheated of justice, does not the Lord see it?” (vv. 34-36, New Jerusalem Bible).  Lord, what are you going to do?

As the hymn says, “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, / Blessings all mine and ten thousand beside!”  Seizing that hope keeps our love from growing cold.

A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the spiritual disciplines of the prayer of recollection and of secrecy.  (Again, that’s not the secrecy as opposed to keeping confidence.  It’s the secrecy Jesus displays by telling people to not turn him into a spectacle.  He heals and then tells the people to not broadcast it all over the place.)  I gave as another example of secrecy the over-the-top behavior of the guy praying very loudly, confessing his sin, in a quiet time and a quiet place.

In her work Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Calhoun speaks of the discipline of celebration.[2]  It’s the discipline of abandoning oneself to joy, of giving in to the spirit of gratitude and love, of just letting go.  That covers a lot of ground; it has many different aspects, but there is something she says I readily understand.[3]

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One of them is “taking yourself less seriously.”  Some of us have more trouble in that than others!  I’ve often thought a key quality of our bearing the image of God is a sense of humor.  We humans didn’t invent humor.  Where can humor come from but a source of infinite joy and good will?

Did you know that humor is a powerful weapon?  Brian Doyle in The Thorny Grace of It speaks to this point.[4]

“Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness.  What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you.  It advances the universe two inches.  If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words.  You and I know this is possible.  It is what [Jesus] said could happen if we loved well.”

Cynicism and mockery can’t appreciate the pure, uninhibited appeal of genuine and authentic humor.  There’s an easiness of spirit, without which we can become brittle.  When we’re brittle, we don’t have flexibility.  When we’re brittle, our sense of humor becomes twisted.  We laugh at the expense of others.  We sometimes give them nicknames, and they aren’t friendly nicknames.  We can become vulgar.  We can’t laugh at ourselves.

There’s something else that goes along with love growing cold.  The discipline of celebration entails gratitude.  When love grows cold, we have the “celebration” of ingratitude.  In our country, we seem to have taken the celebration of ingratitude to new levels.  For instance, many of our so-called “reality” TV shows extol the virtues (or should we say, the vices) of it.

5 lmIngratitude and love have a hard time co-existing.

The apostle Paul has his own take on love.  “Love is patient,” he says, “love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

A friend of mine years ago said he sometimes would put his name in the place of “love” in this passage.  It was a lesson he needed to learn again and again.  Let me try.

James is patient; James is kind; James is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  He does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

James’ love has not grown cold.  That can be a high bar to set!

A posture of love that is kept warm by the Holy Spirit enables the discovery and cultivation of gifts from that same Spirit.

I began with the comment that using the reading from Matthew 24 (with the “love growing cold” business) might seem to be a strange one for World Communion Sunday.  But why not?  If there’s one place where love is meant to be warmed, it is at the table of Holy Communion.  This is where “celebration” of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and joyful, life-affirming humor is to be found.  And surely the entire world is where it needs to happen.

The apostle says, “when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (v. 10).  That word “complete” (τελειος, teleios) is also translated as “perfect”—not perfect as in flawless, but as in finished.  We are not yet complete: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12).

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What awaits us is awareness of the infinite bursting heart of love gazing into our very being, burning away the coldness and resounding through all the worlds with fierce, irresistible euphoria.  Paul is fully known—nothing is hidden—and yet is loved all the more.

Those cold hearts, overcome and warmed with the spirit of celebration, is the foundation for all of the spiritual gifts.  We are empowered by the Spirit and sent forth into a world that is dying for communion.


[1] “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people.” (4:10)

[2] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 26-28.

[3] Calhoun, 26.


matters of death and life

By now, most of you have heard about the seizure which led to my diagnosis of brain cancer.  That was in November 1995.  I had surgery and radiation treatments and was preparing for chemotherapy.

Three months later, in February ’96, Banu and I and a friend of ours were in our apartment.  It was getting a bit late at night.  At some point, our friend had a worried look on her face.  The next thing I knew, EMT personnel were there, asking me if I knew where I was.  It turned out that I had had another seizure.  So back to the hospital.

Like the first time, they gave me some tests, including an MRI scan.  The next day, my doctor came into the room, smiling from ear to ear.  He was positively beaming.  He had good news on what caused my seizure.  They were concerned about regrowth of a tumor, but that’s not what it was.

1 mattersThere’s a scene in the movie Kindergarten Cop which seems oddly appropriate.  Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cop who goes undercover as (guess what?) a kindergarten teacher.  He’s tracking a little boy’s criminal and scary father who’s on the run.

On his first day, the kids are being, well, little kids.  It’s a tough assignment.  Arnold complains, “I have a headache.”  A little boy responds, “It might be a tumor.”  Arnold snaps back, “It’s not a tumor.”  So there’s my doctor (minus my terrible Austrian accent)!

He was happy because I didn’t have a tumor; it was a staph infection.  He was smiling.  This apparently was good news.  I was awaiting a “good news” verdict.  Since it was just an infection, they could give me some medicine, and I’d be home the next day.  Then the doctor said they could operate in the morning.  It seems a staph infection can be pretty serious!

My heart sank.  It wasn’t the second surgery that bothered me so much; it was the realization that this hospital stay would be a lot longer than I had anticipated.  I suddenly felt like a prisoner.  After the doctor left, I told Banu I was glad it wasn’t a tumor, but it still didn’t feel like good news.

We could take my little tale and end it with the smiling doctor and the happy news.  End of story.  Let’s celebrate!  Unfortunately, that was not the end of the story.  Perhaps I was just being a big baby, but I didn’t have a festive feeling.

Now, regarding another story, we’re told it’s “a christianish way of knowing Jesus.”[1]  That’s how Methodist pastor Robb McCoy characterizes “focusing on the happy ending without also seeing the dangerous ramifications of what Jesus accomplished.”

He’s talking about today’s gospel reading in John 11, which following the lectionary, runs from verse 1 to verse 45.  We hear about Lazarus falling ill.  We hear about Jesus’ risky plan to go back to Judea, where he’s a wanted man.  (In fact, they have his picture hanging in the post office.)  We hear about his showing up, knowing that his friend has died.  We hear about Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, venting their anguish at Jesus.  We hear about Jesus himself weeping.  And then we hear Jesus shout, “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43).

Now, cue the heart-rending, achingly beautiful music as the miracle of miracles occurs.  Lazarus walks from the tomb, risen from the dead.

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So, there’s the end of the story.  That’s where our lectionary reading ends.  Get ready for a homecoming party like never before seen in history.  You know, some people are welcomed after traveling from the other side of the world.  How about a welcome after traveling from the other side?

Well, if you read the entire chapter, you can tell that’s not the end of the story.  I’m using one verse of the lectionary text and continuing with the other side of the story.  I appreciate the lectionary.  It forces us to scriptures that we ordinarily might ignore.  But I’ve also aired my complaints about it.  Sometimes good stuff gets left out!

That hasn’t escaped the attention of Rev. McCoy, who comments on ending the reading at verse 45.  “It doesn’t just cut off the story before it gets interesting, it cuts off the story before the most important part is revealed…  [T]he story of Lazarus is not so much about the power of Jesus.  The story of Lazarus is about how people react to this miracle.”

“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him” (v. 45).  To be honest, I’m not sure what my reaction would be.  Seeing someone that you knew for a fact had been four days’ dead just walk out of the tomb—what do you do with that?  It is a matter of death leading to life.  So for the folks on the scene, being witnesses to that elicits a major awakening of faith.

So how about that party?  We’re going to have a toast to Lazarus and, of course, to Jesus!  Everyone’s coming.  “But some of them…”  Hold on, it doesn’t look like everybody’s in a mood for merry-making.

“But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done” (v. 46).  Seeing the love Jesus has for Lazarus, and seeing the loving power he exhibits on his behalf, many of the onlookers come to believe in Jesus.  They come to believe that he is the Messiah, even if it defies their expectations of what the Messiah should be.  But not all of them believe.

The opposite of love is fear.  Fear is what drives them to the Pharisees.  Maybe they fear what Jesus has done and who he is.  Maybe they think he’s a deceiver.  Maybe they want to stay on the good side of the Pharisees.  In any event, this is a key turning point in the ministry of Jesus.

(A couple of quick notes.  Regarding the Pharisees: they’re usually portrayed as bad guys in the New Testament.  They actually were defenders of the Jewish people in the face of outsiders who wanted to oppress them—including the Romans.  And regarding John’s use of the term “Jews,” context is necessary.  In his time, the church is indeed being persecuted by certain Jewish elements.  Still, the Greek word used (ιουδαιος, ioudaios) might be better translated as “Judeans.”  The use of the word “Jews” has led to centuries of persecution by Christians!)

How do the Pharisees respond to the news of Jesus’ miracle?  They and the chief priests call a meeting of the council, the Sanhedrin.  They acknowledge, “This man is performing many signs” (v. 47).  However, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (v. 48).

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They are well aware that Jesus is using the power of life against the power of death.  In their heart of hearts, they know that.  Still, just like the people who brought word of him to them, they also are acting from a place of fear.  McCoy says, “They feared Jesus because his was a power they could not abide.  They feared Jesus because he was threatening their way of life.  He was threatening their comfort, their position, and ultimately their power.”

Therefore, the choice is made.  Jesus must die.  Caiaphas, the high priest, chides them.  He warns them against any possible indecision.  “You know nothing at all!” he gripes.  “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (vv. 49-50).

Caiaphas is speaking at the practical, political level.  Why not sacrifice one person if it keeps the Romans from lowering the boom?  Unknown to him, God has other ideas in mind.  St. John says by virtue of his position as high priest, Caiaphas is giving voice to divine will.  Yes, Jesus will die for the nation, and the people of God everywhere will find, in that death, unity.

Caiaphas and his friends are sure of something.  Jesus is dangerous.  Even Lazarus is dangerous.  In chapter 12, he also is targeted for termination.  He is living, breathing evidence of what Jesus has done.  Because of him, even more people are turning to Jesus.  This fellow who walked out of the tomb needs to go right back.  He needs to take a dirt nap!

After the Lazarus event, nothing can be the same.

Sad to say, one thing these fellows have learned from the Roman Empire is the power of death, the power of the grave.  They better not play cards with Jesus, because he will say, “I see your power of the grave, and I raise you a resurrection.”

It does seem like death can silence life.  Don’t we see that everywhere?  That’s what the enemies of Jesus are counting on.  And they get their wish.  The life of Jesus is snuffed out.  He’s as dead as dead can be.  It’s his turn to take a dirt nap.  But somebody wakes him up!

Our friend Rev. McCoy issues a warning.  Just as the chief priests were wrong to think that death could imprison Jesus, we are wrong—we are being christianish—“if we think that the power of Jesus is something that shouldn’t be feared.”  It’s a mistake if we too easily dismiss it.

Jesus cries, “Lazarus, come out.”  McCoy continues, “Church, Come out!  Come out of your comfort zone.  Come out of your fortress.  Come out of your ‘good old days.’  Come out of your sin.  Come out of the lies that tell us how to succeed, consume, spend, buy, then donate and be happy…  Come out of your slumber, and go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

How many of us have been inspired by a book or a movie or music but didn’t let it affect how we live?  What happens when we stop the story before we’re called to act?

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We do need to pray for courage, for bravery, but without giving in to bravado, to arrogance.  After all, Jesus knew when it was time to get the heck out of Dodge, and he spent some time in a “region near the wilderness,” remaining “there with the disciples” (v. 54).

Still, there is a time to come out, to come out of our fortresses.  We all hit high notes in our stories, but we must remember that our stories continue.  In these matters of death and life, the road is not always easy.  For some, it is rarely easy.  Still, know that we have a risen Savior who has gone through the worst of experience and remains faithful to us.  Our Savior defeats death and holds us in life.



Independence Day theological reflections of one American

The wording of my title has been carefully chosen.  First of all, “Independence Day.”  It is the one day of the year in which we’re especially called to be grateful for the gift of nation.

Then there’s the word “theological.”  That speaks to questions like:  how is God involved in it?  Where is God to be found?  And they are “reflections.”  I don’t pretend this is some universal truth that applies to everyone.  I’m speaking from my own experience.

And indeed, this is the viewpoint of “one” American.  But though I am one, I am an “American.”  In some ways, I feel like I could be nothing but an American.  Having been adopted as an infant, I don’t know who my genetic ancestors are.

In a similar way, America as a nation has no single clear understanding of its genetic makeup.  After all, what does an American look like?  What does an American sound like?  Our political history mainly ties us to England, but as a whole, Americans look to all parts of the world, not to mention those who were here before the Europeans ever showed up.

So there’s that.  But I do have a better reason for saying that “I feel like I could be nothing but an American.”  It’s because I love my country.  I love America.

For the first ten years of my life, we were a military family.  My dad was posted to various naval bases around the country, from coast to coast to coast.  That meant plenty of moving around, guaranteeing that I saw a whole lot of this country.

But like most of us, whether or not we’re from a military background, I was taught at an early age that God has blessed America.  However, my young mind—not so good with nuance—made the assumption that since God had blessed America, we were better than people from other countries!  (I’ve since learned that Banu was raised with a similar belief about Turkey—that’s there’s nothing more glorious than being a Turk!)

Ferguson flag

There is within the spirit of America a conviction that people have human rights, that they shouldn’t be tortured, that the government shouldn’t tell them how to think, that they are truly “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  That’s why it’s a shame when we, as a country, don’t live up to those convictions.

I realize that many say faith and politics should be kept separate.  (By the way, that’s a whole different animal from separation of church and state!)  When it comes to airing one’s political opinions from the pulpit—such as telling people who to vote for—I would agree.  As Christians, we need to learn to think theologically, not just politically.  As I said earlier, “Where is God in this?  How do we think of God?”  That’s what the New Testament church does.

The gospel is inherently political; it’s inescapable.  Words like “Lord” and “Savior,” in the first century, are political terms.  They aren’t merely spiritual in the sense of being disconnected from everyday life.  The terms “Lord” (κυριος, kurios) and “Savior” (σωτηρ, sōtēr) are titles attributed to the emperor.  Nero and Domitian, a couple of emperors with really big egos and serious self-esteem issues, are especially insistent about it.

When the early Christians call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” they are well aware of what they’re doing.  For them, it isn’t an empty phrase.  It’s not something to put on a bumper sticker or post on Facebook.  They are saying “no” to the arrogance of empire.  They risk losing their jobs, their freedom, or something even worse.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says to “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (20:25).  Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.  I wonder, what does that mean for us, on our nation’s 240th birthday?

We see the scribes and chief priests sending representatives to Jesus, but they’re hardly doing so in good faith.  The scripture calls them “spies who pretended to be honest.”  That’s not a vote of confidence.  Their job isn’t to pursue meaningful dialogue; their job is “to trap him by what he” says, so that they can hand him over to the Romans (v. 20).  They aren’t there to listen; they just hope he screws up!

The backdrop of our story is the payment of taxes to the Roman authorities.  Any loyal Jew, with any patriotic sensibility, considers being taxed by this foreign government reprehensible.  The enemies of Jesus have racked their brains, trying to come up with some way to get rid of this guy.  He’s drawing too much attention, and they feel that can only spell trouble.

Somebody has one of those “aha!” moments, and says, “I got it!”  If Jesus teaches “the way of God,” let’s see what he says about the law.  If Jesus says it’s legal to pay those taxes, he’ll anger the Zealots.  (They are the Jewish insurgents who want to overthrow the Romans, by any means necessary.)  No doubt they will say, “If he won’t lead the revolt, then it falls to us.”

However, if he says “no,” the Romans will step in and take care of him.  Either way, we win.

The folks trying to trick Jesus haven’t done their homework, or they might have guessed their plan won’t work.  Jesus is proactive, not reactive, about the job of reconciliation.  He is intentional.

For example, among his disciples he’s included Simon the Zealot, one of those Jewish revolutionaries.  He’s also included Matthew the tax collector, a collaborator with the Romans.  Not exactly birds of a feather.  Compared with them, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are identical!

In answering the question about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus elevates the discussion.  Changing the perspective, he gets to the heart of the matter.  He gives the perfect answer to their question, one that invites them to challenge their assumptions.

Christ and caesar

Ten days after the 9-11 attacks, a well-known person spoke of his own assumptions that needed to be challenged.  I’m referring to the guy who went from being Terminator to Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He spoke of growing up in the scarcity of postwar Austria and of his dream of going to America.  He arrived in 1968 with $20 in his pocket, and within six months starred in his first movie, the classic work of art, Hercules in New York.

He said, “I called all my friends back in Europe and said: ‘It’s true!  You can do anything in this country!  Come over here!  It’s everything you imagine—and more!’”[1]

Arnold spoke of 1989, when President George H. W. Bush named him the Chair of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.  He traveled all over the US, promoting fitness programs in schools.  He believed if a poor farm kid from Europe could make it in America, anybody could.  Encountering the poverty of American cities forced him to challenge his assumptions.  He said he used to go around saying, “Everybody should pull himself up by his own bootstraps—just like I did!”  But he changed, and said, “What I learned about this country is this:  Not everybody has boots.”

Arnold finished by saying that “it’s not just the bodybuilding and the business and the box office for me anymore.  Helping the kids who need help is the most important goal I have.  This is what it means for me to be an American.  Maybe that’s what it could mean for you, too!  No matter how much success you have, you can be more successful by reaching out to someone who needs you.”[2]

We are called, both as Americans and especially as Americans of faith, to expand our vision, to look outward, to be proactive about reconciliation—to take the first step in peacemaking.  We’re called “to form a more perfect union.”

And again, as the church, St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:17-18).

Our second hymn today, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was one I had never heard or sung until going to seminary in the 90s.  I found out that it’s often called the national anthem of the black church.  It was that second verse which reinforced it for me.  “We have come / over a way that with tears has been watered; / We have come, / treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”

That comes from the black experience of America.  I’ve had friends who told me some stories, stories of everyday life: stuff I’ve never had to deal with or even think about.  Still, black history, Native American history, Latino history, white history (although we usually don’t think of it that way)—all of that and more is American history.  But more than just national history—the civic side of things—all of that belongs to church history.

Now, to recall my question from a few moments ago, how do we as Americans of faith live on the 240th birthday of our country?  There is a vast difference between being an American and an American of faith, just as there’s a vast difference between Caesar and God.

As Americans who belong to the body of Christ, we are called to actively celebrate the good and to challenge the injustices, not only in our country, but in ourselves.  To say that each person is born with inalienable rights means respecting and honoring those who are different from us, in whatever way.

It also means not denying our identity in Jesus Christ.  It’s easier than we think to conceal the cross behind the flag.  Remember, there is a difference between Christ and Caesar!  We mustn’t confuse the two as we rightfully celebrate, as we seek to be grateful to God for the gift of nation.

May we live lives that are authentically Christian this Independence Day.  May we sing with sincere belief in mind and genuine joy in heart:

“Shadowed beneath Thy hand / may we forever stand, / True to our God, / true to our native land.”


[1] Arnold Schwarzenegger, “The Education of an American,” A Patriot’s Handbook, ed. Caroline Kennedy (New York:  Hyperion, 2003), 567.

[2] Schwarzenegger, 568.