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Subversion and Preservation

July 5, 2009

Sermon: 7-5-09

Text: Matthew 10:34; 9:16-17; 5:17-18

For the past several years, I have approached this particular service of worship recognizing Independence Day with mixed feelings.  Nobody is a flag-waver any more than I am.  My sense of patriotism is no less than anyone else’s.  I love this country, but I am concerned for the Christian church and for its relationship to this country.  It is out of that heart of concern and out of prayer that I bring this message to you today.  Listen, please, to see if your spirit resonates with mine as we consider this very important relationship between our devotion to God and our devotion to our country. Rather than beginning with Scripture this morning, I am going to begin with two other readings, one from the Declaration of Independence and the other from the Constitution

Have you read the Declaration of Independence recently?  Have you gotten out that document from 1776 or maybe looked it up in a printed form in which the English has been updated, making it easier to understand? 

Several years ago at a large mid-western university, students created a version of the Declaration of Independence using contemporary wording.  They carried it around to various shopping malls and asked numerous people to read the document and sign it.  Almost everyone refused to sign it, saying it was too radical, too extreme, too subversive.  Listen to the wording of the Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

I do not believe it too strong to say that document is subversive. 

The Constitution, the shortest and oldest written constitution of any sovereign state, was written just eleven years later and ratified only twelve years after the Declaration.  Listen to the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.

The Constitution, in contrast to the Declaration, is not a subversive document.  It is a document intended to preserve values that were held very dear by a fragile new Union.  These two documents represent two sides of the way a nation is to react.  On the one hand, it is subversive, a word we almost hate.  It sounds like somebody is trying to instigate and promote terrorist activity.  I imagine that is exactly what the British thought.  On the other hand, the Constitution simply asks, “Now that we have created this new nation, what can we do to hold it together?  What can we do to preserve these values and make them secure?”

Please turn with me to the Scriptures that serve as our text for today, all passages that come from the Gospel of Matthew.  You will notice that I am taking these words from Jesus in reverse order.  First from Matthew 10, beginning at Verse 34:  “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on earth.  I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  This passage is very prone to misinterpretation, but clearly Jesus is saying, “I have not come to maintain the status quo.  My very presence is going to create conflict.”

Matthew 9, a very brief parable you will recognize, provides us with some sort of middle ground.  We see a balance in Jesus’ words.  You see here the desire and concern to develop something new so that values can be preserved.  Verses 16-17: 

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.  Neither do men pour new wine into old wine skins.  If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.  No, they pour new wine in new wine skins, and both are preserved.”

Then on the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus speaking words intended to reassure his disciples that he has not come just to turn over the fruit basket.  He has not come just to abolish everything.  Listen to his words in Matthew 5:17-18: 

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law until everything is accomplished.”

These three teachings from Jesus demonstrate exactly the same kind of balance between a need to be subversive in a sense and also a need to be preserving, a need for preservation. 

I have recently become reacquainted with a French author and philosopher, Jacques Ellul.  I read his works long ago, but this week I went back to a book he wrote entitled The Subversion of Christianity.  Ellul is known as a political ethicist.  He argues that the fourth century alliance between the Christian church and the power of the state under the Emperor Constantine really changed the very nature of Christianity. Constantine, backed by the power of the state, encouraged the development of authoritarian thinking in the church.  Ellul says that with that change, the true faith in Jesus Christ became institutionalized and Christianity became what he calls a “world encrusted religion.”  This institutionalization, he says, was a subversion of Christianity because it was not following the teachings of Jesus.  Instead, it became so wed to the state under the Emperor Constantine and the Roman Empire that it lost its identity in Jesus Christ. 

This becomes, then, a slippery slope for the church in all times, in all countries, and in all places.  Ellul says that the institutionalization of faith appears almost inevitable, but the resurgence of the Gospel is also inevitable.  Preservation will occur, but some continual subversion will also happen.  He says that this must be so that, to quote Jesus, “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church” (Matthew 16:18).  This does not mean that only one particular solution exists.  It means that the church is always living with this tension, trying to decide how best to relate to the culture, how best to relate to the government in which we find ourselves.

I want to share three illustrations with you.  One, very briefly, is the Protestant Reformation, which is really a subversion of the church by the church.  Martin Luther, a monk, saw that the church needed to be reformed.  He went to the door of the church in Wittenberg and nailed there points of contention with the established church.  From the Roman Catholic side, this reformation is viewed as a revolution.  It is called the Protestant Reformation – Protestant from the word protest.  Martin Luther, clearly regarded subversive, was condemned as a heretic because he dared to raise issues that he thought needed to be discussed.  One of the reasons we have the Free Church tradition, one of the reasons we are free to worship as we do in our particular denomination today, is because of this subversive activity by Martin Luther.

The second illustration is one that perhaps will make you uncomfortable.  I was in a doctor’s waiting room this week, sitting near two women who apparently knew each other and me, though I did not know them.  They began talking to me as if we were long lost friends.  Both of them called me by name.  I found out that one woman had come to this country from Cuba during the early days of Castro.  A Spanish teacher, she taught some of my younger brothers and sisters in high school.  The other woman had worked in a cafeteria in several schools and now works in a local church. 

As we were talking about their churches, I asked the cafeteria worker, “What is the name of your church?”

This one woman said, “My church is Jubilee Baptist Church.”

I thought the name was a little bit odd, but she explained, “We are called Jubilee Baptist Church because we were founded in 1865 by slaves that had been freed.”  That church came out of the great conflict of the Civil War. 

The issue of slavery was a contentious issue among Christian people in this country for a long time.  The Quaker John Woolman, even before the Revolutionary War, did his best to curtail slavery.  He was literate at a time when so many people were not.  He agreed to write a will free of charge if the person requesting the will would agree that upon their death all of their slaves would be set free.  This was Woolman’s way of being subversive, his way of doing what he could to change the institution of slavery. 

A great conflict between churches in the North and churches in the South occurred in the mid-1800’s.  Abolitionists were very much prominent in the North.  You have probably heard of one family in particular that was an outspoken opponent of slavery.  Reverend Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian minister from Connecticut, and his two cleric sons, Henry Ward Beecher and Charles Beecher, all spoke out against slavery.  Perhaps you know of his daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Her novel was a subversive piece of literature about the problem of slavery.  When Abraham Lincoln finally met her, a diminutive woman, he said, “This is the little lady who started such a great war.”

Meanwhile in the South, clergymen were preaching sermons from Scripture that said, “Slaves, be obedient to your masters” (Ephesians 6:5).  A division occurred between Southern Baptists and American Baptists.  In May 1845, a group of our fellow Baptists at the First Baptist Church of Augusta, Georgia, voted that slavery had been ordained by God.  On December 17, 1860, the First Baptist Church in Columbia hosted the South Carolina Secession Convention.  We were the first state to secede from the Union.  The delegates voted 159 to 0 to leave the Union over the issue of slavery.

When Columbia surrendered to William Tecumseh Sherman five years later, Wade Hampton and his Confederate cavalry retreated from the city.  Many Union soldiers took advantage of the ample supply of whiskey and began drinking.  Fires began in the city, and high winds spread the flames, destroying most of the central city.  Some say the fires were accidental; others say Union soldiers set them. Many claim that retreating Confederates set the fires.  Regardless, the next day brought a concerted effort to burn what remained of key buildings in Columbia, such as railroad depots, warehouses, arsenals, and machine shops. 

Five years after the secession convention had been held, a group of Sherman’s men went to the First Baptist Church in Columbia and asked the caretaker, “Is this the church where the vote was taken to secede from the Union?”

The caretaker answered, “No, it was the Methodist church down on Washington Street.”

Sherman’s men went down to Washington Street and burned the Methodist church to the ground.

In 1995, 150 years after the convention at Augusta, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution, apologizing for slavery.  The Baptists have yet to apologize to the Methodists.

Let us move to a third issue where you can see the tension in the relationship between the church and government by considering Nazi Germany.

Week before last while I was at a conference in Nashville, I met a remarkable man from Detroit, Dr. Hubert Locke.  He is an African-American who has spent his life dealing with the ethical issue of oppression.  Oddly enough, this man is recognized as one of the world’s experts on the Shoah, the Holocaust.  I hope we can invite him to Spartanburg to speak as a part of our Scholars-in-Residence Interfaith Connection.  When I asked him about that possibility, he answered, I am seventy-five years old.  You had better hurry if you want me to come.” 

Dr. Locke gave as clear and concise a statement about the role of the church in Nazi Europe as any I have ever heard.  Any perceived threat to Hitler could not be tolerated.  Locke stated that the church was under great pressure.  The churches of Germany responded in a very mixed way to the pressure.  Concerned about the possible invasion by Russia and the spread of Communism, the Nazi regime, Hitler, and the Catholic Church actually signed an agreement in 1933, saying that Hitler would not interfere with the Catholic Church and that the Catholic Church would not raise questions about his politics.  What an agreement!  This pact compromised the church. 

Hitler, of course, did not keep his end of the bargain.  He started a concerted attack on the Catholic Church just four years later, especially against the priests.  The Pope, Pius XI, issued an encyclical, a papal letter to the bishops of the church.  The title of his encyclical translated in English is “With Burning Anxiety.”  In it, the Pope tells of his discouragement over Hitler’s betrayal.

Hitler had more difficulty in dealing with the Protestant Church because of the many different groups.  I am sad to tell you that a group of Lutheran churches bought into Hitler Germany.  They began identifying members of their congregation who had Jewish ancestry.  They ousted them from the Christian churches even though they had professed Christ and also turned the members’ names over to Hitler.  The leader of that group, a Lutheran pastor, was given the title Reich Bishop. 

Others opposed, however.  The king of Denmark, a man so appropriately named Christian, responded differently.  King Christian was in the habit of getting up early and riding his horse among his people. When the Nazis invaded that area, every Jew was ordered to wear a yellow star.  The morning following that order, King Christian again rode his horse among his people.  Overnight, his tailor had embroidered a star in his coat, and his horses had been adorned with yellow stars.  The people of Denmark caught on, and everybody started wearing yellow stars – Jews and Christians alike.  The Jews were hidden in plain sight because everyone wore a yellow star.

Martin Niemoller, a pastor and decorated officer during World War I, also opposed Hitler and his regime.  Niemoller was sent to a concentration camp for seven years and kept in solitary confinement.  Many others in his branch of the church, called the Confessing Church, were persecuted and sent to prison.  Chief among those was a young pastor and theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He started a ministry with the prisoners and guards in that camp.  Some guards actually wanted to help Bonhoffer escape, but he refused, thinking it would imperil his family.  Bonhoeffer was eventually placed in a high-security prison operated by the Gestapo.  Just three weeks before the Nazis surrendered, Bonhoeffer was strangled to death by a piece of piano wire.

The camp doctor who witnessed Bonhoffer’s execution wrote, “Before his death, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to God.  I was most deeply moved by the way this loveable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.  At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer, climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed.  His death ensued after a few seconds.  In almost fifty years that I served as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

I have thought about who has the responsibility, the huge responsibility, of representing Jesus Christ in relationships between the church and the government of the United States.  I have adopted seven principles, seven responsibilities, for my own life that I would like to share with you.   You may or may not want to adopt these principles.

First, I must refrain from presidential bashing – whether it is against President Bush or President Obama.  I must refrain from demeaning any elected official – whether it is Governor Palin or Governor Sanford.  I must also refrain from listening to others who harangue our government leaders.  I must, instead, seek to help my country by trying to understand how God would have me speak His truth into these situations.

Second, I need to be involved in healthy political debate, expressing my opinion, but  promising to make every effort to keep it out of this pulpit.  Politics does not need to be here, but I do have a responsibility to talk privately with people about the decisions that are so urgent and important.  We all have a responsibility to be informed and to participate.  Our opinion does matter.  If we follow the teaching in Ephesians 4:2, we are “to build one another up in love,” not tear each other down.  We are to do this by speaking the truth in love.”  This Scripture applies in our homes, in our churches, and in our country.

Third, I will consider loyalty a noble virtue.  Blind loyalty, however, is foolish.  I love my country, and I pledge allegiance to this flag and to the country for which it stands.  I get chill bumps every time I hear “The Star-spangled Banner.”  As a good Boy Scout, I have pledged on my honor that I will do my best to do my duty to God and to my country – in that proper order.  God is first.  My country is second.  We have a higher allegiance.  Our love for God must supersede our love for our country.

Fourth, I realize it is a mistake to call America a Christian nation.  We might want to call it that.  We might long for our country to be a Christian nation.  America has a Christian heritage, but consider the other side.  God is not the God of the United States of America and that alone.  God is the God of the whole world.  He does not love America more than He loves any other country.  He loves all people, all people.

Think about what that means.  Does God love the people of North Korea and South Korea?  Does He love the people of Iran and Iraq?  Does God love even our enemies?  Yes, and He calls us to do the same, though it is really hard to do.  We have some wonderful Christian founding fathers like John Adams and James Madison.  If you saw the newspaper yesterday, Hobby Lobby took out a full-page ad, making numerous references to people who spoke as Christians.  Other of our founding fathers were not Christians, Thomas Jefferson among them.  He was a deist. 

In this country, the fastest growing religious faith is Islam.  If you think all Islamic people are coming here from other countries, you are mistaken.  Most were born right here.  They are native-born Americans, just as most of us are. 

What is our responsibility?  We are to be Christians that bring leaven to the whole lump.  We are to be Christians in this world, but we are to understand that the God we love, the God of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is also the God of people who do not know Christ.  That knowledge leads us to our great mission imperative to proclaim the love of Christ.

Fifth, I believe in liberty and justice for all.  So many atrocities in this world, both religious and political, have resulted from the violation of that one principle.  One group of people believing they are better, more favored, than another group of people has resulted in religious persecution and still does.  Consider the persecutions of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the institution of slavery, and anti-Semitism.  How are Christians to live?  We are to live by the Golden Rule.  “Liberty and justice for all” means that we treat other people as if we were the other people. 

Sixth, I realize that an incumbent responsibility goes with every freedom.  I want you to look at the Bill of Rights, a document that focuses on the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of press in the First Amendment.  Every right has an equal responsibility.  If we have the freedom of religion, we have a responsibility to exercise that religious faith.  If we have the freedom of speech, we have a responsibility to exercise the freedom of speech properly.  It is true with all other freedoms we have.  If we understand that and if we ask God to give us discernment, we will know when we need to be subversive and when we need to be preserving.  Each individual must decide, while living within the law and by the grace of God. 

Finally, I have a responsibility to pray and to pray fervently.  II Chronicles 7:14:  “…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sin and will heal their land.”  Our land does need healing.  We sing the words, “America, America, God mend thine every flaw…”  We do have flaws.

How can God make this country into what He intended it to be?  He can use us.  He wants to use us.  We must be devoted, though, first of all, to God.  Do you remember the collusion between the empire and the religious establishment that killed Jesus?  Annas and Caiaphas, the great high priests, were in collusion with Herod and Pilate, representatives of the Romans.  Collusion existed between religion and government.  I believe with all my heart that Jesus died for individual sins.  He died for Annas and Caiaphas and for Herod and Pilate, no less than he died for me.

Have you accepted that?  Acknowledging that Jesus Christ died for your sins, asking him to come into your life, and accepting him as your Savior makes the greatest difference.  If you have never made that decision, we invite you to do so today.

 Kirk H. Neely
© July 2009
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