Sermon for October 20, 2002
The Church and the State: Isaiah 45:1-7, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, and Matthew 22:15-22
St. John's Lutheran Church is close to the center of government.
The state capitol is two blocks up the street. Government office buildings surround
us. Many of our members have been deeply involved in state government and have
been and continue to be state, county and city workers and officers. The Lutheran
Office for Public Policy is housed in our building.
So the lessons today, with the famous saying of Jesus, "lend unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and under God the things that are God's," cause all of us to think about government and how it relates to the church.
The topic is important at election time. This season, we have an especially negative campaign. It is good for us to remember Luther's understanding of the 8th commandment: We are to always speak well of others, defend them with our words, and to place the most positive construction on all that they do.
It is easy for us to condemn the negative campaigning of politicians. But it exists because negative campaigning gets votes. People pay attention to it. We hear the language that works best in this dirt-digging age. The result is a pile of mud rather than concrete solutions. It is easier to blame the politicians than to see our own dark needs satisfied by these campaigns. Until we decide that we want to hear good ideas instead of tarnish, all we will have is more mud. It will be slung as long as it works. This election is a challenge for all of us to remember to speak well of others at home, at school, at work, in the office, in media, and in the halls of government.
Which brings us squarely to the emperor and the church in all the lessons today. In Isaiah 45, Cyrus, the emperor, is the messiah, deliverer, the anointed. The state is an instrument that accomplishes God's design. Cyrus the Persian (Persia is present day Iraq) has conquered the enemy of Israel and has set Israel free from foreign oppression.
In the second lesson, in the Greek city of Thessalonika, the situation is different. Here the state is the persecutor of Christians. The Thessalonians have overcome persecution and are known throughout the region for courage and mission support.
In Matthew, the gospel lesson today, the relationship between government and the church is a delicate balance between rival allegiances (Jerusalem and Rome). The church-state issues are a hot topic used to trap Jesus. No matter what he says, he will be in trouble. He avoids the trap with a wisdom saying about priorities.
For the church in our own time, the state can be both good and bad. Our unique American view of separation of church and state is probably not a biblical view. It is a relatively new thing for the church and governments to be separate. It is uniquely American. Most Lutherans live with an established state religion. Our German visitors coming this May live with this arrangement. Our American view is grounded in tolerance and a desire to avoid religious hatred and bloodshed. But our historic separation does not imply secularism. It was not a freedom from religion that was sought, but a freedom of religious choice.
Actually, there is a civic faith built into the American system of government. Our currency or money states our belief in a God. Americans believe that people are endowed with inalienable rights by a creating God, that we live under God, and in God we trust. In the civic faith God does not have a specific name. Still the civic faith has hymns and anthems, creeds of allegiance and rituals.
The core beliefs of the civic faith are life, liberty, freedom to pursue happiness, justice and equity of opportunity, representative authority, and participatory democracy. These values define a common good that has been seen as the manifestation of God's will for people.
At times in our history, especially during the civil war and WWII, a sense of destiny tied to these core beliefs becomes very important to us. At times of national tragedy, the strength of the civic faith rises to the surface.
There is an ethic in the civic faith. The state has a responsibility to preserve, promote and defend the common good, and to provide a level field for opportunity. Honesty and fairness in public and private dealings are part of the ethic of our civic faith. The state is called by its ethic to place limits on hatred, greed and extravagance. God is more important than the money on which God's name appears.
The state and its resources may not prescribe, endorse, or establish a particular belief in God. It cannot even endorse its own faith even as it is practiced. The state may not restrict the free expression of personal religion. But in the United States, it can partner with the church in a variety of ways. Government may work with other institutions, including the church and other governments to accomplish the common good.
For its part in the U.S., churches encourage diversity of opinion
regarding how fully their membership supports the civic faith and the various
interests of the state, including war. In the Lutheran tradition these range
from approval of the state's interest to standing in complete opposition to
the state. As the lessons indicate today, it depends on the issue and the government.
In public work, the church supports tolerance. In approaching the state, the church works best within an ecumenical and interfaith framework with an emphasis on service rather than evangelism.
The church may partner with the state for the common good, and most often does so through bridging non-profit organizations, such as Lutheran Social Services. These cooperative efforts best assume that service rather than evangelism is the point of the church. LSS of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula is the largest social service agency in the state comprised of approximately 400 programs and a budget of 85 million this past year. 80% of that budget involves government funding, usually through county structures.
There are limits on the capacity of the state to tax the church, because taxation historically has implied control. The church generally must conform to the laws of the state in which it resides.
The church does not support particular political candidates or parties, but advocates on issues that reflect its best interests or more ideally the interests of those least likely to be heard. The church can advocate within the state for social change that, in its opinion, would promote the common good.
It has historically been a voice for the poor. It has historically stood for peace when others want war. Out of respect for the fragility of life, the church has stood for peace between peoples, protection of life at its beginning and endings, and limits on capital punishment. It has historically stood for justice when inequity prevails. It has recently recalled the importance of creation.
There will be times when the state will oppose or suppress the church. And there are times when the church opposes the state.
And finally the church may pray for the government, its officers, our nation's teachers, civil servants, and our soldiers, and we often do so in church, recognizing that in our particular congregation we are praying for our own. We pray for their well being, that they work for freedom, that they have wisdom, integrity, and restraint, and that they do not loose sight of the high calling given them by God.
In these ways our church and our government are separate
and interconnected. Some things belong to the church. Other things belong to
the state. But there is a common ground where service to others, work for the
common good, and advocating for those values and people most likely to be forgotten
bring the church and the state together.
Today the words of Jesus remind us to mend our fences, to renew our partnership with government for service, remember our priorities, and to call for more light than heat from all who would lead.