An advertisement for a trip to Yellowstone National Park

A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on July 3, 2011.

Exodus 5

5Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” ’ 2But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.’ 3Then they said, ‘The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.’ 4But the king of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labours!’ 5Pharaoh continued, ‘Now they are more numerous than the people of the land * and yet you want them to stop working!’ 6That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, 7‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, “Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.” 9Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labour at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.’

10 So the taskmasters and the supervisors of the people went out and said to the people, ‘Thus says Pharaoh, “I will not give you straw. 11Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.” ’ 12So the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt, to gather stubble for straw. 13The taskmasters were urgent, saying, ‘Complete your work, the same daily assignment as when you were given straw.’ 14And the supervisors of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and were asked, ‘Why did you not finish the required quantity of bricks yesterday and today, as you did before?’

15 Then the Israelite supervisors came to Pharaoh and cried, ‘Why do you treat your servants like this? 16No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, “Make bricks!” Look how your servants are beaten! You are unjust to your own people.’* 17He said, ‘You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, “Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.” 18Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.’ 19The Israelite supervisors saw that they were in trouble when they were told, ‘You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks.’ 20As they left Pharaoh, they came upon Moses and Aaron who were waiting to meet them. 21They said to them, ‘The Lord look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odour with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.’

22 Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? 23Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.’

Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Across the United States many churches are holding worship services planned around the theme of “God and Country.”  Here is how Stan Reeves, an elder at Grace Heritage Church in Auburn, Alabama, describes these services on the website “Reformed Baptist Fellowship.”

“The 4th of July is near, and it’s time for cookouts, barbecue, fireworks, and – so it seems – patriotic worship services …At least in my neck of the woods, these are often called ‘God and country’services.  A typical patriotic service might include a presentation of the American flag, singing of patriotic hymns, and a message centered around the Christian roots of the United States and a call to return to them. Are these services God-honoring?  Are they wise?” 

Reeves mentions two problems with patriotic worship services.  First, he thinks that a “God and country” service seems to put country on the same level with God who alone should be the object of our worship.  Another problem with patriotic worship services is that they operate as if the United States is a “Christian nation.”  But Reeves writes:

The body of Christ is a united body – neither Jew nor Greek nor barbarian nor Cythian (Col. 3:11).  We are told that heavenly worship is conducted by those “ransomed people…from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev. 5:9) Why would we focus an entire worship service on a theme that only a very small part of the body of Christ in a very specific time in history could appreciate?  Could those who are not U.S. citizens enter into such worship, particularly those who may have different political views or whose ancestors have suffered at the hands of ungodly policies in our nation’s history?  These themes raise great difficulties for enacting the unity in life and worship to which we are called as God’s people.

This sermon is titled “God, Country, and a Few Inconvenient Truths” because it seems that too many followers of Jesus are unwilling to ask the questions Stan Reeves has posed.    Understand me, please.  I do not suggest that the people of God should be anarchists or disloyal citizens.  Civil government is necessary.  We should pray that government officials act with wisdom, compassion, honor, and integrity.  We should be thankful to live where people can practice their religion—and their non-religion—without interference from or intimidation by governmental officials and rules.

However, we shouldn’t ignore the “inconvenient truths” exposed at Exodus 5 and Matthew 22:15-22 that appear elsewhere in the Bible.  Perhaps we should consider whether our patriotic “worship” services do so.  Perhaps we should ask why we find it “convenient” to overlook those truths.  Perhaps we should prayerfully consider the moral, ethical, and other results of disregarding those “inconvenient truths.”

God deserves unshared glory and allegiance, in worship and the rest of life.            

The Bible does not begin with “In the beginning God and country.”  The redemption theme that runs through the Hebrew Testament and the Christian Gospel isn’t based on patriotism, but on divine love and truth.  We worship God, Creator of all places and people.  We worship God, Sovereign over every ruler and empire.  At Revelation 1:4-6, the Apostle John makes the issue clear when he wrote: 

Grace to you and peace, from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.  To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests [and priestesses] serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.  Amen.  [Emphasis added] 

God alone is worthy of worship.  God alone is worthy of praise.  God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s truth, God’s justice, God’s joy, and God’s righteousness are not shared by the United States or any other nation.  We either worship God alone or we don’t worship God as God deserves to be worshiped.  On July 4 and every other day the commandment must be obeyed.  You shall have no other gods before me.  [Exodus 20:3]

Devotion to God requires confronting and challenging injustice.  

Support for the government and its military is a consistent theme in many patriotic “worship” services.  But every government in human history has violated the divine mandate of love and truth.  And whenever that happens, the governments have relied on military and police power to prosecute their claims to power and obedience.   Devotion to God requires confronting injustice, usually while being out-numbered, out-gunned, and under-funded.  That was true for Moses and has been true throughout human history.

The Egyptian ruler we read about in the Exodus narrative is a good example of this inconvenient truth.  He oversaw an oppressive social, political, commercial, and military empire.  When Moses confronted him and that empire in the name of God to demand that the Hebrew people be allowed to worship God, the ruler said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go?  I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” 

Change the scene from Egypt to the United States.  Change the challenger from Moses to Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Cesar Chavez.  Change the nations from Egypt to Germany under the Nazi regime, or South Africa during apartheid, or the United States from the beginning of its existence.  Remember that these societies, like Egypt during the time of Moses, oppressed vulnerable people.  Even when human rulers pay lip service to honoring God, they rarely exercise their civil powers in ways that square with divine love and truth. 

In the Exodus narrative, the ruler imposed required government workers (the Hebrew slaves) to find their own materials (straw) to make bricks.  Now we see 21st Century rulers withdrawing collective bargaining rights to government workers, refusing to allow workers to negotiate on health care benefits, and insisting that workers continue to perform.  As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

In the Exodus narrative, the ruler was oppressive to immigrant workers and refused to respect divine authority.  Today we see political leaders who claim to follow the God of love and truth support laws that oppress immigrants throughout the United States. 

These examples should motivate people who know that God loves workers and strangers to confront and challenge those leaders and demand that we welcome and protect them as our neighbors.  Like Daniel and his friends, who refused to worship the idol erected by the Babylonian ruler, you and I should refuse to obey man-made laws that violate divine law. 

And as Jesus showed by his response to the people who tried to trick him with the question about paying taxes, we are obligated to obey man-made laws that do not violate justice.  That’s rendering to Caesar what Caesar is due.  But no man-made law in any nation trumps the divine mandate for justice.  Stealing from workers to balance budgets is wrong.  Oppressing workers because they are immigrants is wrong.  Treating workers harshly because they come from other countries, speak other languages, and have no visible political allies is wrong.  Passing laws won’t make it right, only legal.  Jesus recognized the difference and refused to allow his enemies to trick him into confusing the legal obligations owed to civil authority and the moral obligations of God that no man-made law or law-makers can overrule.

So instead of patriotic praise for the nation, we should be doing some prophetic evaluation of our man-made practices and policies.  Here are some questions we should ask if we really want to be faithful to the divine law.

  • What is just and loving about cutting social services for poor, hungry, sick, aged people, children, and workers while extending tax breaks for millionaires and their businesses? 
  • What is loving and true about demanding that struggling people who live in crumbling and dangerous neighborhoods in central and southwest Little Rock pay higher sales taxes to subsidize property developments in wealthy neighborhoods? 
  • Why aren’t political leaders in Washington cutting military spending in Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe, Africa (yes, there’s a U.S. military build-up underway in Africa in case you missed it), Korea, and other military outposts around the world to balance the budget? 
  • What’s right about the Tea Party and other so-called “anti-tax” people who are against supporting the government by taxing income?  Jesus paid taxes.  Why shouldn’t people contribute a fraction of their income to support the common good?
  • What are you and I doing to protest and resist the oppressive movement to criminalize immigration?  Don’t turn away from reality.  People who are strangers are being labeled as criminals.  Their children can’t tell where their parents are from.  Laws are being introduced, passed, and enforced that make it illegal to give undocumented workers help in finding work, getting social services, or even obtaining a ride to work, school, or elsewhere.  Where is the love and truth of God in these laws? 

The good news is that God will not bow down to government, be it yours, mine, or any other.  The God of Moses, Daniel, and Jesus loves people from every nation, language, tribe, and religion.  Jesus has shown us what the test is for every nation:  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.  [Matthew 25:35-36]. 

God has set the example for this love in Jesus Christ and calls us to live as prophets and priests of divine love and truth.  When we do so, the nation will be challenged to be loving, humble, generous, welcoming, fair, and kind, no matter what that nation may name itself.   When we do so, we are helping the promised day to come when the kingdoms of this world bow to the kingdom of God.  Today and always, we remember that Jesus taught us to pray, Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name.  Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. [Matthew 6:9-10].  Amen. 

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