Another Ruler

[special_heading title=”Another Ruler” subtitle=”by Louise Westfall” separator=”yes”]On the way to watch the Tampa Bay Rays play the Texas Rangers at their home field last Saturday, 7-year-old Mary Grace Hartman lamented she had left her glove at home. Her dad reassured her that it likely wouldn’t matter, given how rare it is to catch a foul ball at a game.  But Mary Grace’s big brother Joseph had brought his mitt, and proved that you should never say “never.”  The 12-year old Little League veteran caught a foul ball hit by the Rays’ Austin Meadows, and then ran joyously back to his seat where his family was waiting. There without hesitation he handed the ball to his little sister.  [from the Today show July 1]

Aw.  As someone who has been attending baseball games for 45 years and never caught a foul ball (though I always bring my glove!), I’m especially touched by the brother’s instantaneous generosity.  But even non-baseball fans (if there are any ?) can appreciate the unselfish gesture of sibling love.

Baseball always turns my mind toward America.  Baseball originated here, yet welcomes the contributions of players from other nations.  Dads and moms still teach their children to pitch and catch, and keep their eye on the ball.  Sure you can spend a small fortune on club level seats, but the Rock Pile is within practically anyone’s budget.  There are no strangers at a baseball game; you’re going to high-five a Charlie Blackmon homerun with the people around you whether you know them or not.  The essential goodness of people comes out in baseball, like giving your sister the ball you caught.

Lately, though, the connections seem a bit forced.  Our divisive political rhetoric poisons a sense of camaraderie and feeling that we’re all in it together.  We’re less welcoming to those coming from outside our borders, and the desperate cries of immigrants packed into detention centers drown out the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence.  A sense of entitlement seems to make us wary of others: hey, you didn’t bring your glove so you don’t deserve a prize.    The gap between the haves and have-nots is growing and alienating.  The joy of the game has gotten lost among competing economic and political interests.

On this weekend when we have lifted up the very best of our nation’s values and beliefs–as well as acknowledging its contradictions and pain points–it seems important also to consider the relationship between good citizenship and good faith.  Where do they meet?  Can one strengthen the other?  What responsibilities do we have as people of faith to participate in and improve our national life?

Scripture addresses these questions, yet always seems to keep the line between God and country distinct.  Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s, Jesus said–and then left his followers to figure out what that means and how to apply it.  Frankly, Jesus’ relationship to political power was conflictual throughout his life.  News of his birth (as a promised ruler) sent King Herod into a murderous rampage, and it was a civil authority–Governor Pilate–who condemned Jesus to his execution.  The biblical book we’ve been exploring this summer–the Acts of the Apostles–narrates how this conflict continued after his earthly ministry, through the witness of his followers, proclaiming the good news in ever-widening circles throughout the world.  Today’s text takes us to Thessalonica, a bustling port city of culture and influence.  The apostles’ presence and preaching create an uproar…but read or listen carefully to see if you catch what it was precisely that made the city so uneasy.  A reading from Acts, in the seventeenth chapter at the first verse.  Listen for God’s Word to the community of Jesus’ followers.  [Acts 17:1-9]

Ironically, what the religious and civil authorities feared about the apostles’ preaching was well-founded.  They actually were proclaiming primary allegiance to another ruler besides the emperor.  And the implications of that belief would turn the world upside down.  It is said that the blood of the martyrs nourished the church in its infancy, as primary loyalty to Jesus Christ made many bold to reject allegiance to the monomaniacal emperor and his rule based on power and might.  Thou shalt have no other gods before me echoes from the first of the Ten Commandments.  Jesus is Lord.  Those are exclusive claims to Divine authority; relegating earthly rulers and national loyalties to subordinate concerns.[callout_box title=”As people of faith, we are called to primary allegiance to another ruler than any human one. Before anything else, we are beloved sons and daughters of Almighty God (and so are all the people of this earth). ” subtitle=””]I’m deeply grateful to live in a country where freedom is prized and the right to worship, to speak according to one’s conscience, to gather in common purpose, and pursue life, liberty, and happiness according to conscience is guaranteed by the rule of law proclaimed in our Constitution.  Among my sweet memories is belting out our National Anthem at a Cleveland Indians baseball game some years ago.   I’ve followed the practice of my late mother who flew the flag without fail on national holidays.  But I’ve also been a frequent participant in marches and protests calling for changes in my country’s policies and practices that seem contrary to its ideals of liberty and justice for all…and the dictates of my understanding of Christian faith.

Perhaps it is because of the beauty and power of our free nation, I think we sometimes conflate church and state to create a kind of civil religion that dishonors both.  Dishonors our faith, because it elevates earthly rule to ultimacy, equating human policy to Divine mandate.  Dishonors our national values, because it limits them to a privileged few.  So we see how the religious right has forced particular beliefs upon the entire nation.  And we see how our leaders have curtailed human rights of people who are Muslim, those entering the country seeking asylum, and those who make public protest against the status quo.

As part of the mission team that traveled to Cuba earlier this summer, I was fascinated to see how this tension plays out in a Communist country.  The Presbyterian Church has been active in the island nation for over 130 years, has many vibrant and growing congregations, and engages in ministries of Bible studies, kids’ Sunday school, and youth groups, senior citizen activities, and lively, music-forward worship.  We actually attended a presbytery meeting at First Pres, Havana, where I had preached some 20 years ago.  Nothing seemed much different–except that the pastor was a woman and the proceedings were projected on a large screen suspended from the chancel ceiling!  Our Cuban friends told us the church is not persecuted, and that people of faith are not automatically excluded from government positions.   Yet the distinctions between Christian faith and the proudly secular government keep the two from blurring together.  You can be a loyal Cuban citizen as a smaller subset of one’s primary identity as a follower of Jesus.  And when the two are in conflict…well, it’s complicated.  There certainly isn’t the right to protest and advocate for another perspective.  Some realities have to be accepted, and then dealt with sideways.    On my first visit to Cuba 25 years ago, a member of our group asked a Cuban pastor, “Isn’t it difficult to be Christian in a Communist country?”  To which the pastor replied softly, “Yes.  Yes it is…as difficult as it is to be Christian in a capitalist country.”  It only complicates the matter when I tell you that pastor is now retired…and a legal US resident residing in Miami, Florida.

Friends, it isn’t easy.  As people of faith, we are called to primary allegiance to another ruler than any human one.  Before anything else, we are beloved sons and daughters of Almighty God (and so are all the people of this earth).  Our citizenship as Americans, precious though it be, is secondary to our citizenship in the Kingdom of God.  We hew to the standards of that realm and are guided by its principles and values.

…which we won’t always agree upon.  There are Christians of every political stripe.  We exercise good citizenship when we participate in our national life by voting, keeping informed about the issues, advocating for positions and policies and practices consistent with our nation’s ideals and the mandates of our religion.  We exercise good faith by treating one another as brothers and sisters, members of the same family.  We can disagree without disrespect; we can oppose without demonizing.  There are many legitimate ways to address the challenges of our common life.  For example, Scripture never outlines a faithful immigration policy.  But it is crystal clear in its command to care for the last and least, to protect the vulnerable, and welcome the children.  It is both faithful and patriotic to call for humane treatment of them at the border.

Friends, may we strive first of all for the Kingdom of God, where grace is abundant, freedom connects us to community, and there is a place at the table for everyone.  God bless America…God bless the whole world and the beloved people who inhabit it.