Saturday, July 29, 2017

"Waiting for God"

            Waiting is simply part of the human condition.  While we usually don’t like to wait, waiting is part of life.  We wait for stoplights; we wait for doctor’s appointments; we wait for tables at restaurants; we wait in lines; we wait and wait.  Waiting is a part of life.  But, what about waiting for God?  Have you ever felt as though you were waiting for God?  Perhaps you have felt as though you were waiting on God to answer a prayer, which you had prayed again and again and again.

            This week we will learn about the life and faith of someone who spent a great deal of her life, waiting on God to answer her prayers.  This Sunday, July 30th, we continue our five-week exploration of “Woman of Faith in the Bible.”  During this study, we will explore the life and faith of five women from the Bible:  Miriam, Naomi, Ruth, Rachel, and Mary Magdalene.  Our focus this week is on Rachel.

            Rachel was born in the desert to a Jewish family of shepherds.  Her father was Laban, and her older sister was Leah.  One day, when she was a beautiful young woman, Rachel herded her family’s sheep down to a well because the sheep were thirsty in the hot, dusty desert and needed some water.  At the well that day, she met Jacob, who was her first cousin.  The tone of the Bible suggests that it was pretty much love at first sight for Rachel and Jacob.

            Jacob wanted to marry Rachel.  He offered to serve Laban, her father, as a shepherd and laborer, for seven years in order to marry Rachel.  Laban agreed to the arrangement.  So, Jacob and Rachel had to wait for seven long years before they could get married.  Jacob worked for seven long years for Laban, Rachel’s father.  At the end of the seven years’ service, Jacob asked for Rachel’s hand in marriage.  Laban agreed and a large wedding festival was prepared.  However, on the night of their wedding, Laban played a devious trick on Jacob and Rachel.  Here’s how the Bible describes what happened:

So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah [instead of Rachel] and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?’  (Genesis 29:  22-25)

Once he has been exposed and condemned, Laban makes an excuse, appealing to a local custom in his area:  “Laban said, ‘This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn.’” (Genesis 29:26)

Ultimately, Laban agrees gives Jacob permission to marry both of his daughters, Leah and Rachel, but only if Jacob agrees to work an additional seven years as a servant to pay for Rachel.  Since Jacob deeply loves Rachel, he agrees to these terms and serves Laban for an additional seven years. 

            So, Rachel had to wait a long time before marrying her one true love, Jacob.
            In the ancient Middle Eastern culture of Jacob and Rachel, the most important gift which a married couple could receive was the birth of a son, a male heir.  Although Rachel and Jacob loved each other very much, they were childless for a long time.  Once again, Rachel found herself waiting and waiting.  I’m sure that Rachel prayed and prayed to God, asking God to help her get pregnant and have a son.  But, Rachel had to wait for God to answer her prayer.

            Meanwhile, Rachel’s older sister, Leah, who was also Jacob’s wife, was having baby boy after baby boy.  At one point, Rachel became very jealous of her sister, Leah.  So, Rachel followed an ancient custom, by giving her handmaiden, Bilhah, to Jacob so that could have a son with Bilhah—and, indirectly, with Rachel.  Ultimately, Leah had six sons before Rachel finally conceived.  Rachel finally did give birth to a son, Joseph.  Later, Rachel conceived and gave birth to a second son, Benjamin.  Unfortunately, Rachel died during childbirth with Benjamin.  Jacob buried the love of his life and built a great funeral monument to Rachel.  (See Genesis 29:1 – 35:20)

            I believe that contemporary Christians can learn a lot from Rachel about waiting on God.  We know that God has God’s own plans and timetable for our lives.  Yet, frequently, Christians are impatient with God.  We become frustrated when God does not respond according to our plans and on our timetable.  Yet, I believe that impatience with God may reveal an inner weakness in our faith as Christians.  Our unwillingness to wait until God’s time may well indicate inner doubts, which we may have concerning our faith.  Impatience may reveal our inability to accept how deeply God loves us, or to fully trust that God is capable of blessing us in God’s own good time. 

            Rachel’s story offers faithful Christians a model and a reminder that, always, we must trust in God to know what’s best for us and to trust that God will act in our own best interests in God’s good time.  In the Book of Isaiah, God reminds the Hebrew people:

            “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, July 30th, as we reflect on the life and faith of Rachel and what her story can teach us about faithfully waiting for God.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come and join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

“Ruth and Boaz—A Love Story”

            This Sunday, July 23rd, we continue our five-week exploration of “Woman of Faith in the Bible.”  During this study, we will explore the life and faith of five women from the Bible:  Miriam, Naomi, Ruth, Rachel, and Mary Magdalene.  We began this exploration with Miriam on July 9th.  Last week, Beth Menhusen, our Associate Pastor, continued by examining the life and faith of Naomi.  This Sunday, July 23rd, I will focus on Ruth.  Then, I will round out our examination the following two weeks with Rachel and Mary Magdalene.   

            The Book of Ruth in the Hebrew Scriptures is a story of loss and redemption, as well as something of an eventual love story between Ruth and Boaz.  The story begins with a terrible famine which ravages Israel.  The famine is so severe that a certain Hebrew couple, Elimelech and Naomi, decide to emigrate with their two sons to Moab. 

            For a few years, the Hebrew family seems to flourish in Moab.  However, tragedy strikes when Elimelech dies.  After his death, Naomi and her two sons remain in Moab.  The two sons grow into adulthood and eventually marry two Moabite women:  Orpah and Ruth.  After ten years, another tragedy occurs when Naomi’s two sons die, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law. 

The death of her husband and two sons is a profound loss for Naomi.  In addition, to the emotional grief and loss, Naomi is left without any family to support her.  At this point in history, the government did not provide social safety nets for those who were without a family or source of income.  This meant that widows and orphans were especially vulnerable to poverty and hunger.  So, without a husband or extended family in Moab, Naomi faces a financially threatening future.  At about the same time, she hears news that the famine is finally over in her native home of Bethlehem.  So, Naomi decides to go home to Bethlehem, where she has extended family who can help her.

            With Naomi’s encouragement, Orpah returns to her family and their support.  By contrast, her daughter-in-law Ruth decides to stay go to Bethlehem with Naomi.  In a famous verse from the Bible, Ruth tells Naomi, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried.”  (Ruth 1: 16b-17a) 

            Naomi and Ruth arrive back at Bethlehem, just as the barley harvest is beginning.  Ruth decides to go out into the fields to glean behind the men harvesting the grain.  Gleaning  is the process of walking the fields after the harvest and gathering up stalks of grain that have been missed by the harvesters.  In addition, Jewish law prohibited farmers from completely stripping their fields.  In addition to the grain missed by those harvesting, the farmers were also supposed to leave grain at the edges of the fields for the “poor” and “resident alien” so that they might not go hungry. 

            By chance, Ruth begins gleaning on the fields of Boaz, who is a relative of her deceased father-in-law, Elimelech.  When Boaz sees Ruth, he asks his foreman who she is.  The foreman replies, “‘She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, “Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.” So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.’” (Ruth 2: 6b-7)  Although it would be a stretch to say that, when Boaz first saw Ruth, it was love at first sight.  Nonetheless, Boaz is impressed.  He encourages Ruth to glean only his fields, and tells her that she can drink water from the vessels supplying his workers. 

            At this juncture, we would do well to remind ourselves that Ruth is a foreigner.  Even worse, she is a Moabite woman.  The Hebrew people looked down upon the Moabites with contempt and loathing.  The two peoples had a history of bickering, hostilities, and shameful encounters.  In the Hebrew Book of Numbers, there is a story of the Israelites staying in the land of Moab during the forty years spent wandering in the wilderness.  During their stay in Moab, many Israelite men began to have illicit sexual relationships with Moabite women. This led to some of the Jews beginning to worship the false god of Baal.  That is, the Israelites turned away from worshiping and obeying Yahweh, the one true God, who had delivered them out of slavery in Egypt.  This apostasy angered Yahweh and so the Hebrew leaders imposed a prohibition upon intermarriage with Moabite women (See Numbers 25: 1-5). 

            Given this backstory, Ruth is stunned at the generous treatment which she receives from Boaz.  So, she falls prostrate before him and asks, “‘Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’”  Boaz answered her, ‘All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!’” (Ruth 2: 10b-12)  Later during the day, Boaz invites Ruth to eat in the field with him and his workers. 

When she hears from Ruth about how friendly and generous Boaz was in the fields, Naomi begins to hope against hope that a romance will develop between Boaz and Ruth.  Throughout the rest of the harvest, Ruth gleans only in the fields of Boaz.  Yet, the romance between Boaz and Ruth stalls and goes dormant.  As the harvest was ending, Ruth and Naomi concoct a plan to re-kindle Boaz’ interest in Ruth.

Knowing that Boaz will be at the threshing floor winnowing his grain well into the night, Ruth washes and anoints herself, dressing in her finest clothes.  At night, she makes her way down to the threshing floor.  When the work is completed and all of the grain has been winnowed, Boaz eats and drinks, celebrating the harvest with his workers.  After Boaz was filled with food and perhaps a bit too much wine, he stretches out beside his crop to sleep.

The next passage is very difficult to interpret.  It is filled with puns, word-plays, and double entendres.  The text says that, after Boaz falls asleep, Ruth silently approaches him and uncovers his “feet” and lays down beside him.  However, Biblical scholars note that in the Hebrew language, “feet” may be a euphemism for genitals.  That is, Ruth uncovers more than just the feet of Boaz. 

Around midnight, Boaz awakens to find his “feet” uncovered and Ruth lying beside him.  Ruth reassures him, by telling him that she is his servant.  Then, she tells Boaz to “spread his cloak” over her.  Again, in Hebrew, to “spread his cloak” has a double entendre.  It may be a euphemism for having sex, or it may be understood as a marriage proposal from Ruth.  In the verses that follow, Boaz agrees to marry Ruth.  (see Ruth 3:6-13) 

In the fourth and final chapter of Ruth, Boaz follows through on his promise to marry Ruth.  Then, the Book of Ruth concludes by noting that Ruth and Boaz married and lived happily ever after.  They had a son, Obed, who was the paternal grandfather of the great King David. 

Although there are a great many interpretive difficulties, the Book of Ruth can be read as a fun, romantic story of Ruth and Boaz, with a happy ending, including Naomi, who is blessed with a grandson, Obed, to continue the lineage of Elimelech.

At the same time, the story of Ruth offers important guidance for persons of faith who live in the United States in the year, 2017.  One of the most important themes running throughout the Book of Ruth is the treatment of foreigners by the people of Israel, God’s Chosen People.  Ruth was not just a foreigner, she was a Moabite woman.  It would be natural for the Hebrews to view Ruth with suspicion, hatred, and loathing.  The history of the Hebrews’ interaction with Moabites was marred by the Moabite women’s tempting the Jewish men to sin.  One could also imagine the possibility of other gleaners in the field—perhaps poor Hebrews—complaining about that “dirty Moabite woman” taking away the grain, which God intended for them.

In 2017, one cannot read the story of Ruth without reflecting on the cruel and harsh changes to immigration policy instituted by the Trump Administration since the Inauguration.  For persons of faith, the story of Ruth offers a powerful corrective vision of our responsibilities to welcome and care for the stranger within our midst. 

A second important theme running throughout the Book of Ruth is her strength and independence as a woman, living in a patriarchal society.  Throughout the Book, Ruth never gives up.  She is willing to stand up for herself.  In the First Chapter, she is determined to accompany Naomi to Bethlehem, despite Naomi’s encouragement that she stay with her family in Moab. In the Third Chapter, it is Ruth who proposes to Boaz; she does not wait timidly for Boaz to get around to a marriage proposal!  The Book of Ruth champions and celebrates strong, independent women as part of God’s plan for humanity.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, July 23rd.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  During the proclamation at our 8:30 am worship service, we will reflect on the life and faith of Ruth.  However, our 11am will be devoted to a celebration of our church’s Vacation Bible School, and I will not be preaching on Ruth. 

Come and join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

“Miriam – A Study in Contrasts”

            This Sunday, July 9th, we begin a five-week exploration of “Woman of Faith in the Bible.”  During this study, we will explore the life and faith of five women from the Bible, beginning this week with Miriam, who was the sister of Moses and Aaron.  Our full schedule of women is as follows:

Sunday, July 9th – “Miriam”
Sunday, July 16th – “Naomi”
Sunday, July 23rd – “Ruth”
Sunday, July 30th – “Rachel”
Sunday, August 6th –“Mary Magdalene” 

Miriam is one of my favorite persons in the Bible because I feel that I can really relate to her faith and who she is.  We first meet Miriam in Exodus 2, as a young girl.  At that time, the Hebrew people were living as slaves in Egypt.  The Egyptians forced the Hebrews to work in their fields and to build new cities, making their own bricks for construction.  The labor conditions were harsh, yet the Hebrew endured and their numbers actually increased.  The Hebrew population increased so dramatically that their Egyptian masters began to fear them.  So, the Egyptian Pharaoh decreed that all male infants should be thrown in the Nile River and drowned.

When Moses was born, his mother tried to hide him from the Egyptians because of the Pharaoh's decree.  Initially, she hid Moses in her home, but, as he grew bigger, it was no longer possible to effectively hide Moses in the home.  So, his mother placed him in a basket and hid him among the reeds growing on the banks of the Nile River.  Miriam, the young sister, was instructed to hide among the reeds and watch over the basket with her baby brother.  After some time passed, Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe near the spot along Nile where Moses and Miriam were hiding.  Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basked and found the baby, Moses.  Moved by pity, she showed the baby to her attendants and decided to adopt Moses.

When Miriam overheard their conversation, she emerged from her hiding place among the reeds and astutely volunteered to find a wet nurse for the baby until he would be weaned.  Then, she brought her own mother to Pharaoh’s daughter to care for and nurse the baby Moses.  Through this shrew subterfuge, Miriam was able to preserve her little brother’s life and set him up as an adopted member of Pharaoh’s family. 

We next encounter Miriam as an adult woman.  Moses becomes the leader of the Hebrew people, negotiating their release from slavery with the Pharaoh.  Miriam emerges, along with her other brother, Aaron, Moses’ trusted lieutenants and advisers.  Miriam becomes the first woman in the Bible to be given the title of “prophet.”  Moses and the Hebrew people finally escape from Egypt, when God parts the Sea of Reeds, so that they can cross to the other side.  However, the waters quickly close up and the pursuing Egyptian Army is drowned (see Exodus 14). 

When Miriam and the other Hebrew women realize that they are finally free and safe from their Egyptian bondage, they are overjoyed and filled to overflowing with divine inspiration.  They realize that God has a deep and profound love for them and their families.  Filled with joy, gratitude towards God, and a huge sense of relief, Miriam leads the Hebrew women with singing and dancing as they celebrate God’s love and their escape from slavery:
“When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground.
 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.  And Miriam sang to them:

‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’”    ~ Exodus 15: 19-21

            Ultimately, the Hebrews wander in the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land.  During most of this time, Miriam serves as a prophet, advising and helping Moses lead the Hebrew people. 

In the Jewish Talmud, there is a legend about “Miriam’s Well.”  During the Hebrews' years of wandering in the desert, they needed a ready source of food and water.  God provides manna, which falls each day like dew, for food (see Exodus 16: 1-36 or Numbers 11: 1-9).  For water, according to the legend, God provides a well of gushing water.  The well is in the form of a rock, which rolls along, following the Hebrews during their wanderings.  God provides this ready source of water because Miriam is such a good and faithful person.  Miriam’s optimism and faith spiritually sustained the Hebrews during their long journey.  So, the Hebrews called the well, “Miriam’s Well.”  When Miriam dies (Exodus 20: 1-2), the well dries up.

More recently, since the 1980s, some Jewish families have added a cup of water to their celebration of the Seder meal each year.  In the liturgy, “Miriam’s Cup” follows the second cup of wine, with this explanation: 

“Like Miriam, Jewish women in all generations have been essential for the continuity of our people.  As keepers of traditions in the home, women passed down songs and stories, rituals and recipes, from mother to daughter, from generation to generation.  Let us each fill the cup of Miriam with water from our own glasses, so that our daughters may continue to draw from the strength and wisdom of our heritage.”[1]

The inclusion of “Miriam’s Cup” in the Jewish Seder Meal provides a means for remembering and celebrating the strength and faithfulness of Jewish women down through the centuries.

While the scriptures present Miriam as a strong, faithful Jewish woman for the most part, there is one negative story concerning Miriam.  In Numbers 12, Miriam and Aaron are very critical of Moses, when he takes and marries a foreign wife.  In fact, Miriam and Aaron are so angry at Moses that they begin questioning his leadership of the Hebrew people.  Miriam and Aaron ask, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?  Has he not spoken through us also?” (Numbers 12:2) 

God becomes very angry with Miriam and Aaron.  So, God calls for a special meeting with the three siblings—Aaron, Miriam, and Moses.  At the meeting, God makes clear that Moses is the chosen leader of the Hebrew people:  “…my servant Moses…is entrusted with all my house.  With him I speak face to face…and he beholds the form of the Lord” (vv. 7-8).  Then, God strikes Miriam with leprosy, as punishment for her challenge of Moses.

When Moses sees that his sister has been stricken with leprosy, he cries to God:  “O God, please heal her” (v. 13).  God agrees to heal Miriam of her leprosy—but, only after a seven day probationary period.  Since leprosy was considered highly contagious, Miriam must live away from her people, in quarantine.  All of the Hebrew people, wait for seven days on Miriam, until she is healed and can rejoin them.  (v. 15)

This is a rather odd episode in Miriam’s life.  Their critique of Moses’ decision to marry outside the faith seems justified.  Intermarriage between Hebrews and foreigners was prohibited, as Deuteronomy 7:3 makes very clear.  Further, there is a story later in Numbers, which illustrates how intermarriage can lead to corrupting influences in which the Hebrew people begin to worship false gods, instead of the one, true God.  (See Numbers 25: 1-5)  So, Moses is clearly in the wrong when he marries a Cushite woman.  Yet, God seems to view Miriam and Aaron’s challenge of Moses as a far more serious transgression.  One aspect of this story, which I find especially striking is that all of the Hebrew people were willing to sit and wait for seven days in the desert for Miriam to be healed and rejoin them.

I began this discussion of Miriam by saying that Miriam is one of my favorite persons in the Bible because I feel that I can really relate to her faith and who she is.  Just as Miriam, when she served as Moses’ adviser and lieutenant, there have been many periods in my life, when I feel that I have faithfully served God.  Just as Miriam, when she sang and danced on the banks of the Sea of Reeds, there have been many times in my life, when I have been inspired and filled with a strong conviction of God’s Presence in my life.  And, just as Miriam, when she wrongfully challenged Moses’ leadership, there have been many times in my life, when I have sinned; times when I let myself and God down by not living a life of faithfulness.  So, I feel a special kinship with Miriam; someone whom I can relate to.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, July 9th, as we begin our exploration of “Woman of Faith in the Bible” with Miriam.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Come and join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] “Miriam’s Cup:  Miriam’s Cup Ritual for the Family Seder,”, accessed 5 July 2017.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

“Of Taxes and Patriotism”

             I am returning after a long absence from blogging.  Christ UMC, the church where I pastor, generously provided me with a month free from the pulpit in June, so that I could do some long-range planning for worship services and programming over the next twelve months.  So, this Sunday I return to my preaching responsibilities after a very fruitful “planning month.” 

            This first Sunday in July closely coincides with our national celebration of “Independence Day” on the 4th of July.  So, in recognition of our national celebration, I want to focus on the relationship between faith and patriotism.  Specifically, what obligations do Christians owe to their secular government?  To inform and guide our exploration of this question, hear this story from Jesus’ ministry:

“Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They 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.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”  ~ Matthew 22:15-22

            In order to appreciate this episode, it is important to fully understand the political context at the time of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus lived in Israel, a country which had been conquered and subjugated by the imperial Roman Army.  Israel and its capital city of Jerusalem were occupied by Roman soldiers, who enforced the Roman law.  For instance, Roman soldiers or government officials could legally compel an Israelite to carry their pack or other equipment for one mile (see Matthew 5:41).  Naturally, this bred resentment and animosity against the Romans.

            Of all the insults and penalties which the Israelites endured as an occupied people, the worst, most egregious was the “census tax,” a tax levied on each person within Israel.  The Romans required that this tax be paid in Roman currency.  Most of the Roman currency contained the image of Tiberius Caesar, who was the Roman Emperor.  It also contained an inscription which said, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.”  From the perspective of their Jewish beliefs, most Israelites considered the coins blasphemous because of the image and inscription. 

For many Jews, the census tax was the last, ultimate humiliation.  A nationalist movement began to form after the tax was instituted in 6 C.E.  This movement built over the next 60 years, until a revolution erupted in 66 C.E.  The "Great Revolt"was fought between Jewish Zealots and Roman soldiers for the next four years.  Finally, the Romans gained the upper hand and defeated the Jewish Zealots.  The Romans destroyed the Temple and completely burned the city of Jerusalem. 

In our scriptural account the Pharisees and Herodians, who were theological adversaries of Jesus, seek to trap him.  Although they begin with much flattery, the question they put to Jesus is a “trick question.”  They ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  In their use of the term, “lawful,” Jesus’ adversaries mean the Jewish law – not the Roman law. Fundamentally, Jesus’ antagonists have posed a question of duty and obligation.  Essentially, they are raising the same question which we are exploring this weekend:  “What obligation do the faithful owe to their secular government?”

As noted above, this is a trick question; a trap.  On the one hand, if Jesus says that it is lawful to pay the census tax, then his response will antagonize and alienate many of the Jews who hate the tax and are already sympathetic to the nationalist Zealot movement.  On the other hand, if Jesus replies that it is unlawful and that the faithful should refuse to pay the tax, then he risks being arrested by the nearby Roman soldiers as a revolutionary.

Of course, Jesus nimbly sidesteps the trap by replying, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Matthew records that Jesus’ adversaries are amazed by his insightful answer and that they turn and go away.

Our contemporary political context in the United States is radically different than the political context in which Jesus found himself in the First Century.  Yet, we, too, must struggle with this same fundamental question:  “What obligations do Christians owe their secular government?”  In my reflections on Sunday, I will suggest that Jesus’ answer to this question is very open-ended and so the answer depends upon the political context in which Christian disciples find themselves. 

As noted above, it seems to me that Jesus’ response is open-ended.  It is not that Christians must simply pay their taxes and be respectful.  Rather, Jesus says more than that; Christ urges his followers to render to the government what belongs to the government.  What belongs to the government may vary with political context.  In other words, the obligations which Russian Christians owe to their government may vary greatly from the duties and obligation which we American Christians owe to our government.

In the United States, we are governed through a representative democracy.  In this form of government, religious conviction has an important role to play.[i]  The Founding Fathers appreciated that a free and open public discourse was vital to a healthy democracy.  Therefore, they intended to create a system which encouraged many participants to engage in public discourse, sharing a diverse variety of different perspectives. 

Most of the Founding Fathers believed that religion has a vital role to play in the ongoing public discourse so critical for a healthy democracy.  For instance, George Washington, in a “Farewell Discourse” at the end of his Presidency says, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”  What Washington and other Founding Fathers perceived was that religion has the capacity to look beyond narrow individual and group self-interests, in order to discern broader concerns of justice, peace, and long term vision.  In its history, there have been times when religious people called the United States to respond to these higher concerns.  Two of these times were religious leadership in the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

One of the largest challenges perceived by the Founding Fathers was the threat of what they called, “factionalism,” which today we might refer to as “polarization.”  In the Federalist Papers, No. 10, James Madison writes that with factionalism, “the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

In our present political climate, factionalism or polarization has become extremely exacerbated to the point that meaningful public discourse has been completely eroded.  We do not listen to divergent perspectives anymore.  Instead, we talk past one another.  We have our own news sources, our own trusted pundits.  Truth has become relativized and we only believe what already validates our preconceived perspectives.  Yet, public discourse is the life blood for a democracy.  If we cannot renew and revitalize public discourse, then democracy will surely die.

Perhaps churches have an instrumental role to play in the renewal of public discourse and the revitalization of our democracy.  Since love is the core of the Christian message, contemporary American churches, as gathered communities of faith, have the requisite resources for creating safe places to renew public discourse and political dialogue. 

We began this time by asking, What obligations do Christians owe to their secular government?  Within the American political context, perhaps one of the most important contributions which Christians can make to our government is to work towards restoring public discourse.  Additionally, Christians must also encourage our fellow citizens to lift our gaze above narrow self-interest and also work for broader issues of peace and justice and vision.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, July 2nd, as we celebrate Independence Day.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Come and join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] Although the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the establishment of any religion as the official religion of society, it also guarantees the free exercise of religion.