Sermons That Work

Somewhere, Probably Around the Tenth Grade…, Lent 2 (C) – 1998

March 08, 1998

Somewhere, probably around the tenth grade, most of us learned about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in our American History class. And, somehow, most of us remember something vague about the “separation of church and state.” Well, the founders of this country would be appalled at how their noble ideas of religious liberty have deteriorated. Two hundred years after the Bill of Rights was drafted, we have some very strange notion that religion is a purely private matter. We tend to hush up our beliefs, and most of us would never give a religious reason for supporting or opposing any kind of public policy decision. Faith and public life, it is popularly supposed, have nothing to do with each other. The church is for taking care of people’s private spiritual needs, and that’s it. The government will return the favor, and keep its nose out of church business. In late twentieth century America, a lot of people think this is a pretty good arrangement.

However, today’s Gospel shows that our view of a separation of church and state was entirely foreign to Jesus’ way of thinking. Almost two thousand years ago, faith and public life were a lot more closely related than they are now. In fact, they were inseparable. Herod, the Roman governor, was concerned with the radical social changes that this minor rabbi Jesus was promoting. And this rabbi’s teaching was enough of a threat to Herod that killing Jesus was the only possible solution.

In the ancient Middle East, society was thoroughly religious. There was no such thing as a “secular society.” And Jesus’ behavior throughout Luke’s gospel broke every religious rule: Jesus ate with outcasts, worked when he was supposed to rest, treated women as equals, and taught that the poor should be fed, housed, and clothed. He was not content with the social status quo. Jesus said that this kind of care for others, equality and fellowship were signs of God’s rule over the earth. What Jesus preached was radically different from what life was really like in Palestine under Roman rule. If God’s reign would look so different from the way life was, it meant that God was not really ruling, that things were in fact being run by sinful humans. And by implication, this meant that the emperor was not divine, and that was treason against the state. Even today, in an enlightened modern democracy called America, treason is punishable by death — just like it was in the ancient middle east.

Now, the Roman government pretty much allowed the Jewish people to practice their faith without much interference. So long as they did not challenge Roman authority, Judaism was a tolerated religion. If Jesus had simply been a good Jew, Herod would have had no reason to want Jesus dead. But Jesus challenged the social order of his day, its injustices and rigid class structure. That was bad enough, but it wasn’t all. Jesus also sharply criticized the Pharisees, a class of pious, learned, and influential Jews. His biting remarks about their hypocrisy, their love of money, and their complicity with a corrupt occupying government were enough to make the Pharisees want to bring Jesus up on charges.

Despite his stinging criticisms of the Pharisees, Jesus must at least have had their respect. After all, the Pharisees listened to Jesus teach in the synagogues, and as Luke tells us, several of them had invited Jesus to dinner in their homes. This seems to indicate that the Pharisees viewed Jesus as a professional colleague and social and intellectual equal.

And, at least a few of these learned and influential men must have taken Jesus’ message to heart. When a small group of them learned of Herod’s plan to kill Jesus, they warned Jesus and told him that he needed to get out of that region. It seems that, although these religious leaders did not always agree with Jesus, and questioned his interpretations of Jewish law and custom, they were willing to let him continue preaching and teaching. They were willing to protect his life.

Jesus’s response to their warning is important, not so much for the words he said to them, but for the commission he gives the Pharisees. “Go and tell that fox.” Jesus charges these learned and influential religious leaders with the task of telling the earthly government that it isn’t up to par, and that no matter what threats are issued, scholars understood that they were responsible for protecting Jesus’ religious speech and his ministry to those on the edges of society, whether or not they agreed with him or even understood him.

These are important things to keep in mind today. There are plenty of injustices in our contemporary society: racism, sexism, and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor are only a few of the many examples that could be given. And, like Jesus, we are called to name those social problems for what they are, as signs that our public life is not the way God intends it be. Like Jesus, we are called to challenge the earthly authorities to exercise their power according to God’s will. But this is more than a task of individuals in isolation. Specific persons may indeed have the task of identifying problems, and others may be called upon to develop and implement solutions. But it also requires that the church, the religious institution, must be willing to speak to society at large. This is not to say that a government-established religion is preferable to the present structure: indeed, as we see with Roman rule in New Testament times, a religious government can be as corrupt and unjust as any “secular” society we can devise. No, we have laws that provide for non-establishment and free exercise of religion for a reason: so that religious institutions, and their members will be able to openly and freely critique society without fear of persecution. The church must listen to its disturbing prophets, and to take their critique of both the religious society and the broader culture seriously. But the church must also do two things as a result of this. First, the church must protect the right of its prophets to critique and disturb the status quo. And secondly, once the church has heard the message of its most disturbing members, it must carry that message to the broader society. The Pharisees did the first; we don’t know if they actually brought Jesus’ message to Herod as they were commended to do.

We have become so accustomed to the idea of a separation of church and state that we have lost sight of what the Bill of Rights really says. That foundational American document says that Congress will neither establish a religion nor interfere with the free exercise of any religion. That free exercise includes the right of faithful people to evaluate social structures by religious standards. Although the nation’s founders conceived America as a primarily Christian society, it is far from inconsistent with their intentions that we now extend this protection to people who hold any religious views, or who hold none at all. It was a radically new concept in early America that a nation could hold together without an established religion. But the rights and freedoms associated with non-establishment never meant that we were to be a nation that was religiously silent. And religious liberty is not honored by religious silence; rather, it is devalued. Religious liberty is a precious right, and it is one that was not granted. Even without this protection, Jesus spoke fearlessly against the social status quo of his day. We are called to be like Jesus, to follow his example. And we have a legal structure which allows us to do so, both as individuals and as a church community. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Why, as Christian in a free society, are we so reluctant to follow our Lord and speak against injustice with that same courage?

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Christopher Sikkema


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