Freedom, Jesus and Jefferson
JULY 4th AND FREEDOM
(The following sermon was adapted from a series of sermons on the Book of Romans. See http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/romans_churchandpolitics.htm It was adapted to be used on a Sunday near July 4th.)
July 4th. It is coming soon. We Americans are making family plans for July 4th. We plan our picnics and decide if we should buy fireworks or not. If you have a young family with boys, you may be taking a trip to a tent near the roadside that sells fireworks. You may be planning to watch the fireworks in Tacoma or at Ivars or at Lake Union. The racetrack has great fireworks on the night before July 4th.
Only July 4th, we may shoot off our sparklers and bottle rockets. We may go to a fireworks party somewhere in our town. Or we may watch the fireworks on television.
Some of us remember that these flares and bottle rockets are symbols of the words of Frances Scott Key, “the rockets red glare, and bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there.” We light our bottle rockets and see the fireworks bursting in the air and occasionally we remember from our American history lessons in high school that the author of these memorable words was Frances Scott Key. We remember the British ships were attacking Fort Henry near Washington D.C, shelling that fort all night long, with bombs bursting in the air. In the morning, Frances Scott Key got up and saw that the American flag was still flying over Fort Mc Henry. That was in 1814. Frances Scott Key penned those memorable words for American history and posterity.
A short time later, a Mr. Smith set the words to music.
During the World Series of 1917, this anthem was sung at the beginning of the baseball game to honor our troops in the First World War, The Great War. The tradition caught on and soon this anthem was being sung at all baseball games. In March 1931, our Congress declared the song our national anthem.
There are two parts of the sermon for today. The first part of the sermon is an exposition of Romans 13:1-7 which is the finest teaching about government in the Bible. The second part of the sermon is an exposition of the word, AMERICA, and what it stands for.
Would you pull out your bulletin insert with the Scriptures for the day? Let us walk through these seven verses together and then stop and pause at certain places.
These words were written by the Apostle Paul who is the second greatest person of the New Testament, second only to Jesus himself.
When I think of the Apostle Paul, I remember his Roman citizenship. If you were a citizen of the Roman Empire, you had a passport. Your passport guaranteed you safety and protection under the law. You did not have to live in Rome or Italy to be a Roman citizen. The Apostle Paul, who was the greatest missionary of the early church and who wrote half of the New Testament, he was a Roman citizen … from birth. Paul was proud of his Roman citizenship that he received at birth, which means that his mother and father were also Roman citizens. Paul was a Roman citizen and he had a Roman passport and he used that passport to travel the Roman roads all over the world. In his travels, when the Jews would start to beat up on him too much, he would pull out his Roman passport and say to the effect, “I am a Roman citizen, buddy. Back off.” When Paul was arrested, brought to trial and was facing Roman officials in Roman courts, Paul appealed to face trial in the courts in Rome. His legal plea was granted…which gave Paul a safe passage to Rome. In other words, the Apostle Paul benefited enormously from being a Roman citizen. His Roman citizenship was a passport to the whole world, got him out of trouble and saved his life on more than one occasion.
It is with this background that we approach Romans 13 in which Paul writes about his positive attitude towards the Roman government. Just as you and I are very appreciative of our American citizenship and enjoy living in a democracy, so the Apostle Paul was appreciative of his protecting government. When you have an American passport, you can travel safely almost in any place around the globe and you feel the protection of the American government. It was the same with the Apostle Paul. He was appreciative of the protection and legal rights that were given to him because he was a Roman citizen.
13:1 Let every person be subject or submissive to the governing authorities above them. Focus on the words, every person. Every person on earth needs to be subject to their governing authorities. That is true if you are a person in China, Norway, the Sudan, or in any nation around the globe. God has organized the world in such a way that we humans need government above us in order to survive. Similarly, God instituted the human family for our survival. We need mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles; we need family in order to raise healthy human beings. You cannot be a civilized human being without family. The family is not uniquely Christian; the family is not uniquely Jewish. Families are found throughout the whole globe and all of history because families were instituted by God in order to raise civilized human beings. So also, human beings cannot lived together in a civilized way without government. Government, like family, is instituted by God. So if you live in a remote village in China, Norway or the Sudan, at the heart of community life, is the need for governing authorities.
Subject. Let’s focus on the word, subject. It means to be submissive to. For example, let’s say you have been speeding in your car and you get stopped by highway patrolman or woman for speeding. The police car’s lights are flashing and you get pulled over to the side of the road and you roll down your window. What is your attitude as the police person comes up to your door? Meek? Submissive? Respectful? All human beings, not just Christians, are called to be submissive. This is part of universal moral law. All peoples everywhere are to respect governing authorities.
To governing authorities. All people of all cultures are to be submissive to the political authorities over us. Governing authorities refers to parents, to police men and women, judges, military, the city governing officials, the county officials, the state officials, the national officials. We are to be submissive and respectful to the governing authorities because that is the only way that human community can work effectively together.
Those authorities have been instituted by God. In the book of Ephesians, it said that God instituted marriage. God created the institution of marriage for our good. So likewise, God instituted human government for our good. If you do not have human government, you have anarchy and chaos.
Those who resist authority will incur judgment. You break the law, you normally will be punished.
Do what is good and you will receive the authorities’ approval. This is true in all the world. In China, Norway and the Sudan. If you obey the laws, it will go better for you. If you don’t, you will be punished.
For your good. 13:4 The government official is God’s servant for your good. Notice, that I have those words in bold print in your bulletin insert. This line is the key to our understanding of government. A public official is God’s servant for the good of the human community. That is what government needs to understand. That government is a servant. If you are a cop, a fireman, a council person, a state senator, you are God’s servant for the public good. Martin Luther talked about the masks of God; that God’s Presence is hidden behind masks such as good government, good family, good education, good economics. A government official is God’s servant, even if he or she does not realize it. In the Old Testament, God was using Pharaoh; Pharaoh was working for God but did not realize it. He was a servant of God without understanding it.
Be subject to the authority, not only to escape God’s wrath, but because of conscience. In other words, we obey the laws of Des Moines, the laws of the county, the laws of the state of Washington, not simply because we are afraid of punishment, but also because all of those laws make possible human community. So we obey the laws, not only because of fear of punishment, but more importantly, we obey the laws because we know that obedience to civil laws make human community possible. We would have anarchy if we did not obey the city, country, state and federal laws. Human community is possible because of them.
13:6, 7 Let us pay our taxes. Pay all of your taxes. We, as Americans, are fortunate to pay taxes. Taxes are a gift from God. Taxes are a sign that government is at work. Let me explain. It takes money to run this congregation. You cannot run this church without money. It takes money to run a human family. You cannot do it without money. It takes money to run government and you cannot run government without money. Government is a gift from God, especially good government is a gift from God.
Respect to whom respect is due. Honor to whom honor is due. There is to be an attitude of respect and honor to those who are in authority.
Romans 13 is at the heart of Pauline theology. Here was a man who was a Roman citizen. He traveled the Roman roads all over the world as a missionary. He had a Roman passport and he said to the Jews, “You can’t beat me up because I have a Roman passport. I am a Roman citizen. Consequently, the Apostle Paul had a very positive regard and appreciation for the Roman government.
So I ask: how can we apply Romans 13 to our lives here in America? Paul was appreciative of the Roman government and we are appreciative of our American government. So how do we apply his words to us today?
I am going to use the word, AMERICA, and have each letter symbolize a quality that I admire and appreciate about America.
The letter A in the word AMERICA stands for appreciation. We are all appreciative that we live in a stable democracy. There are so many places around the world which live in awful political situations such as Rwanda and the Sudan. We are incredibly appreciative of living in a stable democracy. None of us can truly measure this benefit to our lives.
M. What does the letter M represent? The letter M stands for mission and what is the mission of our country? We are to be a strong, stable democracy as an example to the world. We are to encourage other nations to be democracies as well. Our mission to encourage democracies to be established around the world. We can send certain countries food, money and other commodities but we all want for these countries to establish their own healthy democracy. The best kind of government in the whole wide world is a democratic government. On the recent July 3rd, wasn’t it great that Yeltsin won a democratic election in Russia? The most important event that may have happened this year was a successful democratic election in Russia. If democracy is genuinely established in Russia, perhaps many of you younger children here today may not have to go to a war in which our country is fighting the Russians. In Latin and South America, it wasn’t that many years ago that these nations did not have democracies, but there are now numerous democracies that have emerged there in the past thirty years. One of the missions of America is to encourage stable democracies to be established around the globe.
E for education. In America, we have a commitment to public education. That all people, rich and poor, handicapped, and people with problems will have a right to a quality and good education. A quality education is not to be available only to the elite. Not only for the rich. Many of you are public school teachers, and my wife as a public school teacher is very proud that every kid in a America can receive a good education. Even the handicapped students and the most difficult of children that are often passed over by private schools are welcomed into our public schools. The public school teachers may grouse and complain about the number of difficult and problem children with whom they deal; but at the same time, those teachers are proud that America is committed to public education for all, and I underscore, ALL of its citizens. … We also know that the primary way to escape poverty is through education.
R stands for religion. It stands for religious pluralism. One of the greatest facts about American is our diversity of religions. One of the reasons that America was founded in the first place is that our pilgrims would have religious freedom and that a government would not impose a religion on them. We are grateful that in our country there are Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and every other religion under the sun. We Christians are very careful because we Christians are in a majority and we are careful that we do not impose our religion on those who don’t want it imposed on them. We Christians are sensitive to special times like Christmas and Easter so that our Christian majority does not impose our religious traditions on Americans in public places. We appreciate our religious pluralism in American. We are perhaps more religiously pluralistic than any other nation on earth. We believe in religious pluralism, not merely Christian pluralism.
I stand for individual initiative. People need initiative to succeed. This is not the kind of country where you can sit back and have the government take care of you. That people would work hard with their individual initiative and get ahead. Recently, I came back from visiting our sister church in Russia and there I experienced a culture which for seventy years did not know what individual initiative was. When we went to the new McDonald’s restaurant with the yellow arches in Moscow, they were teaching those Russia kids initiative, how to move fast and get the job done with quality performance. Here in America, if you work hard and take initiative, you probably will get ahead.
The C stands for character. We Americans are committed to the poor of the world. One thing I am moved by is when I visit New York City and Ellis Island and see the statue of liberty. I love those words on the bottom of the statue: Send me your poor, send me your hungry, send me your masses of humanity and bring them here to America. I think of my mother, as a child of four years old in 1911, coming through Ellis Island, a Danish immigrant and family, my mother who lived in poverty for her early decades saying that she was “dirt poor.” Our country is always committed to the poor and wants the poor of the world to come here. We have character. We are always an immigrant nation, welcoming the immigrants from around the world. These immigrants become great American citizens. I remember one day when was at Swedish Hospital in downtown Seattle and a class of people who were being trained as hospital orderlies came out from a door, and every single person in that class was of Asian descent. They were all immigrants. They were taking jobs that local Americans would not stoop to do. We are blessed and enriched by these new immigrants.
A stands for attitude. Our country has always that that positive attitude, that “can do” attitude that gets so many things done. That reminds me of the Greek god, Prometheus who believed in progress. Our nation has that promethian quality; that we can do the job in front of us. It is an attitude. I like the quotation by a current theologian. Attitude is the most important quality that you can have. More important than education. More important than money. More important than status. More important than job. More important than what happens to you. The most important thing about you life is what you do with you life and that is heavily determined by your attitude.
So the Apostle Paul was appreciative of his Roman passport and citizenship just as you and I are appreciative of our American passports, citizenship and our democracy.
BUT…one thing about the Apostle Paul who understands sin so deeply, that sin can get hold of people and really mess people up and sin can get a hold of nature and really mess nature up, but Paul did not really grasp that sin could get a hold of government and really mess government up. It seems to me that Paul was blind to the fact that sin can get a hold of government and really mess government up.
When sin gets a hold of government, you have the worst kind of evil in the world. Sin got a hold of Hitler and his nation executed six million Jews. Sin got a hold of Stalin and his nation wiped out twenty million Russians. Sin got a hold of Big Daddy Amin in Uganda, and his nation wiped out thousands of people. Sin got a hold of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and his regime wiped all most of the doctors and teachers in that land. It is possible for the power of evil to get a hold of government and that government will become increasingly and insanely evil. The Apostle Paul did not have a feeling for that. The Apostle Paul was so appreciative of his passport and the blessings of the Roman government to his own life, he didn’t see how evil could deeply penetrate the government of Rome.
Therefore, it is important go to Revelation 13 to see what happens when evil gets a hold of the Roman government. Romans 13 and Revelations 13 are often contrasted with each other. Romans 13 is an appreciation for good government whose officials are the servants of God; Revelation is a distain for evil government whose officials are the enemies of God. In Revelation, Rome is called the Beast, the Whore, the Prostitute. The Romans Empire is that whore that is beating up all the Christian and killing the Christians, first under the Emperor Nero. Nero is crazy, is burning Rome, is intermarrying with his own family, committing incest and the royal family is growing increasingly insane. The attitudes towards Roman authority in Revelation 13 is opposite of the attitude of the Apostle Paul in Romans 13. Revelation 13 is also the Word of God, just as much as Romans 13. There are times that Christians and other people of good will resist those who are in authority e.g. Bonhoeffer and his partners had to resist Hitler.
Also, the church has always been called to be the moral conscience of the government. For example, in the Old Testament, you always had the kings, but all the kings were bad except for two. In those situations, there was the prophet, and the prophet was to be the moral conscience of the king and say to the king, “Your values are messed up. Your policies are messed up. Your policies do not reflect the justice of God.” The purpose of the church today is when necessary, to say to the government, “Your laws are messed up. Your policies and laws do not reflect the justice of God.” Wasn’t it a black woman, Rosa Parks in the 1960s who got on front of the bus and said to our nation, “Your laws are wrong. I am going to disobey your laws because your laws are not of God.” So people rose up and disobeyed the law. The laws themselves had become sick and needed to be changed.
Yes, July 4th is a great day in the life of our nation. We shoot off out bottle rockets and “ooh and ahhh” at the flares exploding in the darkened sky. And we remember the freedom, the political freedom that the Lord God has given us. Amen.