August 5 at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

In the movie “My Cousin Vinny”, Vincent Gambini is an inexperienced lawyer called from New York to represent his cousin who has been charged with murder in Alabama. The reason? Because he was always able to figure out stuff when he was a kid, from magic tricks to riddles. While the movie mostly portrays Vinnie as a bumbling incompetent, Vinny shows that he can make up for his ignorance and inexperience with aggressive, perceptive questioning during the trial. The first witness testifies seeing Vinny’s nephew arrive at the murder scene parking lot before he started cooking his breakfast grits and saw him flee from the scene after hearing a gunshot. Vinny points out that it takes 20 minutes to make real grits (as opposed to instant grits which no self-respecting southerner would ever use) and so 20 minutes had actually passed between those two events, thus suggesting that there may have been two different cars involved. An elderly “eyewitness” cannot identify how many fingers Vinny was holding up at half the distance she had been from the getaway car in which she claimed to see Vinny’s cousin. Another eyewitness is forced to question his own identification of the defendant when Vinny points out he had been looking through a “dirty window, crud covered screen, a bunch of leaf-covered trees, and seven bushes on his property”. These scenes are priceless because Vinny discredits those whose “testimony” supports an injustice – something that is simply not true.

Our text this week is kind of like that. Jesus is being cross examined by the religious authorities. They want to discredit Jesus’ “testimony”. But then something interesting happens. Jesus seems to get a “friendly question” from a lawyer of all people: “Which commandment is the first of all?” What follows is a brief conversation that teaches us “What Makes Jesus Glad?” which is the title of Pastor Jeff’s message this week which is based on Mark 12: 28-34. Pastor Jeff has preached this before, but times have changed, though the message has not. Come and hear about it Sunday August 5 at 9:30 at John McMillan Presbyterian Church.

Shalom: Thoughts on the breaking down barriers and acting like disciples.

Ephesians 2: 11-22

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

When I was a student at Allegheny College in the mid 70’s, I was a member of a fraternity.

Delta Tau Delta.

We were one of seven fraternities on campus.

Each of the fraternities had different rituals and.

Yeah, handshakes and passwords and other stuff that proved you were a member.

Each fraternity also had a certain attitude.

A feeling that the brothers were different in some significant way from al the rest.

Each fraternity was a community separate and apart from the rest.

Better than the rest.

Exclusive, in fact.

So we were somewhat segregated.

We lived in our own houses.

We wore our Greek letters.

And we were competitive.

We recruited from the same pool of people.

So we had to explain to our recruits why we were better than the rest.

We would assign uncomplimentary adjectives to the other fraternities.

Talk them down while we talked ourselves up.

And sometimes that led to open conflict – rarely physical, but sometimes destructive.

When that happened, the college administration would call all of us together and remind us that we were first and foremost all Allegheny College students, and that was to be our first allegiance.

Each side of the conflict believed that the administration would side with them.

But then …

We were all reminded that though we had separated ourselves into smaller groups, we all were part of a greater community, Allegheny College, and we all needed to act like it.

Why do people do such things?

Separate themselves into exclusive and often conflicting groups?

Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind says it’s because humanity is both selfish and “groupish”.

As self-centered individuals, we look for like-minded people we can combine with to support our similar selfish interests.

That is what humanity has always done, for good or bad, and it is what was happening in the church Paul founded in Ephesus.

Like the splintering of a college community into fraternal factions, the Ephesian church was splintering into religious factions.

It caused conflict and was destructive.

And like the administration at Allegheny, Paul intervenes.

He writes this letter.

What were the divisions?

Why was there conflict?

A bit of context.

Ephesians was written when the Christianity generally and in the Ephesian community specifically was becoming increasingly gentile in composition.

The Jewish Christians who considered themselves the founders of the church were becoming a minority.

While both groups claimed to be part of the Christian community, they defined themselves as being separate and distinct.

Each believe themselves to be special in some way and so better than the other.

The Gentiles believed that they were special because they were becoming the majority in the church.

The church was growing principally because of them.

The Jews thought they were special because Jesus was a Jew, right?

Jesus fulfilled the law.

The Jews followed that law and thought that the gentiles were inferior because they did not.

And the Jews spoke in rather hostile terms about gentiles.

The language borders on “hate speech”.

Gentiles are unclean.

They are atheists – uncivilized.

Destructive conflict indeed!

And then they received Paul’s letter.

They gathered to have it read to them.

Each side of the conflict believed that Paul would side with them.

But then …

Paul had to teach both what being a church of Jesus Christ meant.

First Paul addresses the gentiles.

Paul reminds them that they were once without Christ.

That they had been aliens to Israel and strangers to the covenants God had with Israel.

Far from God.

Alien to God.

Hopeless.

And now they were saved by the God who had a special relationship with and was introduced to them by the Jews.

I have an image of Paul ending this brief scold with the line: “So show a little respect, folks.”

The Jews were likely all smiles at this point.

Then Paul turns to them.

The Jews thought that so long as they knew and followed the rituals and traditions passed down from Moses they were still Israel, God’s chosen.

I’m not sure about handshakes or passwords but there was circumcision.

Then Paul says something like this:

“And you Jews – those commandments and rules and that circumcision – these that you use as a wall between you and everyone else?

Jesus has abolished them.

That barrier that kept Jews and gentiles separate for all those years?

Torn down!

There is no distinction between you and the gentiles in the eyes of God.”

We can only imagine what it must have been like to be a proud Jew in the church when those words were read aloud.

Paul goes on:

You need to make peace!

And that peace is Jesus.

He is our peace.

So, what is this peace?

It’s a spiritual peace, certainly.

It is an individual peace, surely.

But to Paul here, it is a communal peace.

A sense of community well-being, and fulfillment that comes from God.

The word Jesus would have used is shalom.

Shalom is a sense of wholeness.

The community as a whole and complete and unified entity.

It is a mindfulness that God is present.

A sense of harmony even in troubled or stressful times.

A presence that gives us a sanctuary from the anxiety of life.

We must love each other the same way.

Paul’s admonition remains relevant.

Like Jewish and gentile Christians of the first century, we might have different histories, different cultures, different races, but we must be one in Jesus Christ.

In other words, like the college administration that told the fraternities regardless of your differences, you are all students here, Paul is telling the Ephesians that regardless of their differences, they are all disciples of Jesus.

Then, like the college administrators, Paul tells the Ephesian Christians to act like it!

Kyle Fever is the Director of Beyond Ministries, Ingham-Okoboji Lutheran Bible Camps, Lake Okoboji, Iowa.

He describes the impact our text should have on our congregations.

The point is that God’s reconciliation and transformation of humanity finds expression in a unity marked by welcoming and hospitality. Consider areas of divisiveness within the church, or even within culture. We even in the church should not presume that those outsiders need to become like us. The church should be a light that paves the way by welcoming [all]and uniting them into God’s mission in Christ.

As Paul put it in his letter to the Galatians:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

God’s reconciliation is not just individual but communal.

God commands reconciliation between all his people, regardless of theology, culture, race and even politics.

And Jesus is the source of any peace that can exist.

This is big.

Sally A. Brown, the Elizabeth M. Engle Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Princeton Seminary puts it this way.

Today’s reading … is not tame.

No doubt some relatively tame sermons have been preached from this text from time to time — maybe taking to task a congregation fussily divided over the color of the carpet or over the price of adding ten parking spaces to the parking lot. But the text is meant to do more than coax cranky congregants toward compromise. This is a text meant to shake empires.

When Paul wrote this, it was in the middle of the Pax Romana.

The Roman peace enforced by legions of Roman soldiers.

Live in peace or die.

But Paul is saying that there is only one true peace, and that is Jesus.

How does Paul describe that?

15[Jesus] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens … of the household of God …

Which brings us to Paul’s conclusion.

When we become citizens of the household of God, a community of disciples of Jesus, we are in fact the dwelling place God on earth.

A household that is built on the cornerstone of the peace of Jesus.

And as Paul finishes:

21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

So when I read this text, it tells me that it is just such a community that becomes the dwelling place for God.

But this is hard.

Really hard.

Because we are still groupish.

And we have difficulty living our Paul’s message.

The church of Jesus Christ has never been unified.

The Catholic Church divided into the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church.

The Roman Church split at the time of the Reformation.

The “Reformed Church” split into dozens of denominations.

And our own Presbyterian Church into several different groups.

Even here at JMPC, people leave because of theological, ritual, and practical differences from time to time.

Is it possible to follow Paul’s admonition on our text?

Maybe, maybe not.

But we must try.

And we must be reminded.

Oso it is part of our Sunday morning liturgy.

We welcome all comers in the name of Jesus Christ.

We acknowledge our corporate and private sin and hear words of pardon.

We pass Christ’s peace after we share joys and concerns.

We proclaim that God is in our midst when we pray for illumination.

And we depart with a charge to demonstrate Jesus’ peace to the world around us and invite others to join us in it.

With no barrier that divides.

Where we allow everyone who seeks God to get in.

That is peace.

That is shalom.

That is the wholeness we enjoy when we come together as disciples and welcome each other as a unified people.

A new people.

So what does that mean to us here?

Well, I am going to talk about these things in August.

We are going to hear about how where Jesus comes down on these things.

How Peter comes down on these things.

How Phillip comes down on these things.

What it means to believe that Jesus is our peace.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

For folks who are longtime fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins, there are two players with whom such fans have had a hate/love relationship such that the change in attitude might have caused a kind of emotional whiplash. These two players are Ulf Samuelsson and Darius Kasparaitis. Samuelsson had the reputation as one of the dirtiest players in the history of the NHL when he played for the Hartford Whalers and one who excelled at antagonizing opponents, particularly high-priced stars like Pittsburgh’s own Mario Lemieux. People in Pittsburgh hated him! But in 1991, Samuelsson became a Pittsburgh Penguin! He helped the team with its first Stanley Cup that year! He scored the winning goal in the Cup clinching game! And the People of Pittsburgh looooooooved him. Samuelsson was one of “us”. Then there was Kasparaitis. He was known for his aggressive physical playing style and led his teams in hits several times, including his rookie season with the New York Islanders. In the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs, Kasparaitis was assigned to shadow Lemieux. Kasparaitis beat on Lemieux “like a rented mule” and one headline proclaimed “Kasparaitis owns Lemieux”. The Islanders knocked perhaps the best Penguin team of that era and which had won its last 17 games of the season in a row out of the playoffs. Penguin fans loathed Kasparaitis. But in 1996, your guessed it, Kasparaitis became a Penguin. And that hard-hitting style of play continued. And Penguin fans loooooooved it. And loved him. Kasparaitis was one of “us”. How can such things happen? How can we hate someone one day and love that same person the next day? It happens when that person becomes part of our community. And while it does not happen often with the speed of the Kasparaitis/Samuelsson circumstances, that is usually how it works.

While I do not think that the Ephesians had a hockey team, they did have some problems with hate/love relationships. Jews and gentiles just did not get along … until they became one community. Even then, they had a rough time. So, Paul told them how to do it. It still works today. Come and hear about it on Sunday July 22 at John McMillan Presbyterian Church at 9:30 when Pastor Jeff preaches “Shalom” based on Ephesians 2: 11-22. We will look forward to seeing you.

What is a Church? Thoughts on Practicing our Faith and living in Community

Ephesians 4: 17-32

17 Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. 19They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20That is not the way you learned Christ! 21For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

I read an article this week about Max Moroff, a minor league player in the Pirates organization.

He rose through the minor leagues quickly because he could hit.

High average and good power.

Then he got to the Pirates.

He stopped hitting.

They sent him down to AAA.

He still didn’t hit.

Then he decided to look at films of himself when he hit well and compared them to later films of when he stopped hitting.

He spent many, many hours watching films.

And then he noticed a small change in his stance.

It changed when he played in Pittsburgh.

It changed everything about his hitting.

Now he is trying to get that old stance back so he can be the hitter he wants to be.

I found this interesting and wondered why he was not watching his films on a regular basis.

Checking his practice and procedure.

Making sure that everything is the way it should be.

As he wants it to be.

Maybe he thought that once he go to the majors, he did not need to pay attention any more.

So he didn’t.

And it showed.

I think a lot of folks think like that.

I know I did.

When I passed the bar in 1983 and got a job in a law firm, I thought my education was over.

What more did I need to learn?

To pay attention to?

They I found out I needed to learn and pay attention to quite a bit.

I found out lawyers had to attend 12 hours of continuing legal education every year.

I found out we were to be mentored by more mature lawyers.

Why?

Because the world changes and we need to keep up.

And we had to maintain the characteristic that the firm desired and that got us the job.

There is always something we need to learn about in order to be good at what we do.

There is always something we need to make a good habit.

Moroff had to learn how to hit in the big leagues.

I had to learn how to practice law in a big firm.

And Paul says we need to learn to live the Jesus way in a world that is not a “Jesus way” kind of place.

What is Paul’s suggestion?

We see it in verse 23 of today’s text.

to be renewed in the spirit of your minds …

Paul says we were taught to live the Jesus way but have to be renewed from time to time.

To be reminded what living the Jesus way means.

And to apply it to our lives.

Moroff has to review films.

Lawyers have to go to CLEs.

Disciples of Jesus have to go to church.

Church is a place where we can get reminded what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Look at how we did the previous week, hear a lesson on how we might do better, and then plan to put that lesson into place.

But a church is much more than a weekly continuing education.

It is a place where one can find “true north”.

An orienting point fixed in a chaotic world that gives you direction, and keeps you on the right path when there are many, many distractions and temptations to leave that path.

It is what you believe, what you value and the way you want to live.

It is an internal compass.

In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott shares a story she was told by her minister that describes how the church should be a landmark in our lives:

When [my minister] was about seven, her best friend got lost one day. The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, “You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.”

And that is why I have stayed so close to [my church]—because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their tawny voices, I can always find my way home.

I love that image.

Whenever we are lost, we need to look for our church.

Once we see it, we know the way to go.

True north.

A church is also a spiritual health care center.

It is a place where people of faith, whether it is a lot of faith, a little faith, or a desire for faith, come together for some spiritual and emotional wellness therapy.

In the movie “A Knight’s Tale”, Heath Ledger masquerades as a knight so he can win jousting matches and earn money.

Jousting is a brutal sport.

After each match, his armor is battered and dented and broken.

He is bruised and cut.

So he goes to his blacksmith who removes the dents and re-rivets the connections.

She also stitches his cuts.

His small circle of friends surrounds him and gives him support.

They help him to recuperate between contests.

They learn and strategize.

Once done, he is ready to do battle again.

That is what a church does.

Our brutal sport is living in a world that is essentially a place to enjoy, but also attacks us with chaos, temptation, conflict and pain.

We need to gather for community encouragement and care often, and at least once a week.

Because we need it.

Our world does not treat those who do not fit into its values well.

This is how Paul describes his, and our, world.

[We] live as the [faithless] live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.

The culture of our world can infect us with a willingness to accept a way of living that is not what we want.

We forget how to swing the bat, practice law, live the Jesus way.

How does Paul say we treat others badly?

We lie.

We rage.

We steal.

We malign.

We fight.

We refuse to forgive.

We lose our sensitivity to the badness.

We accept it as the “new normal”.

Paul’s treatment plan?

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

And in order to do that, we need to be part of an encouraging community.

The church.

After a week of living in our broken world, we come together battered and dented and bruised.

We need our armor tuned up.

We need our cuts stitched.

We need to see friendly faces.

We need to be supported and inspired.

We need to learn about God.

We need to hear how we are loved and healed by Jesus.

We need to feel the movement of the Holy Spirit.

We need to give ourselves and our children faith and hope.

In that community we can also learn and strategize.

We learn to:

Tell the truth.

Resolve anger immediately.

Give to others.

Use your words only to lift people up.

Live in peace, not conflict.

Forgive.

Be kind to each other.

And that requires practice.

And help from the collective wisdom of everyone else in the church.

Then we are ready to go out – there – again.

That is what a church is.

That is what Paul is talking about.

If you try to go it alone, there is much risk.

I had a friend who had a back injury in college.

He had back pain that became chronic.

He refused to see a doctor because he figured he could manage the problem on his own.

He rejected any treatment because he knew how to control the pain easily.

He took ibuprofen.

The pain went away at first.

But it came back.

He took more ibuprofen.

But the more he took, the less it worked.

Soon, he was taking it by the handful.

When he finally went to the hospital, it was not because his back hurt, though it still did.

It was because he started to lose weight and had severe stomach pain.

It turned out he was in end stage liver failure because of all that ibuprofen he took.

He died a week later.

His treatment plan not only did not resolve his back pain, it killed him.

We cannot make the same mistake.

We need the collective wisdom of a community that can advise us and restore us.

That cares about us.

That cares for us.

Because we need it to go back out into the great epidemic of inhumanity every day and still survive and remain faithful.

That is what a church does.

Pastor Porter Taylor says this:

As part of this [church] we encourage one another and help one another to live out our baptismal promises [which we renew each Sunday]. Paul says, “Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are [part] of one another.” That is, we are all in this enterprise of being church together. Therefore, we are to learn from each other and help each other.

That is what the church is for.

And this is how we can sustain each other.

Christine Pohl is professor of Christian social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary.

She wrote a book titled Living Into Community; Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us.

She describes the practices that best allow us to live together in community.

Pohl says this:

Practices are at the heart of human communities; they are things “people do together over time to address fundamental human needs.” Every community has practices that hold it together; for Christians, practices can also be understood as responses to the grace we have already experienced in Christ, in light of the word and work of God, and for the sake of one another in the world. Our practices include hospitality, making and keeping promises, truthfulness, gratitude, Sabbath-keeping, testimony, discernment, forgiveness, worship, healing and many others.

Wisdom and experience teach us that what is noticed and celebrated is usually always repeated. To build stronger congregations and communities we’ll need to get in the habit recognizing the practices that undergird our relationships and our life together. … Our testimony to the truth of the Gospel and the life-giving power of the resurrection of Jesus stands or falls with the character and practices of our congregations.

When folks enjoy being together, share celebrations, and walk through hard times with grace and love, the beauty of their shared life is deeply compelling. Human beings were made to live in community. And it is in community that we flourish and become most fully human.

That’s a church.

Looking at it another way, whenever we are beaten down, oppressed, sinful, sick …

We look for our church.

Once we see it, we know our true north.

Where we can go to re-boot our batting stance.

To learn about living the Jesus way.

To be cared for.

And to care for others.

That is what this church is.

That is what we are called to be.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

Many years ago I watched an HBO comedy special starring Alan King. King was a funny guy. A really funny guy. One of his stories was about his hospitalization after he collapsed following a performance. The diagnosis? “Complete exhaustion”. King thought that diagnosis was ridiculous. King said such a diagnosis was a rich man’s disease. No one would be able to get a bed in the hospital by simply walking into the emergency room and crying out “I AM COMPLETELY EXHAUSTED!” King was right about that. Hospitals are not for people who are not sick. King did not think he needed to be in the hospital. He was not really sick. But it turned out he was. He had cancer. It was discovered in the hospital, though that is not why he had collapsed. King ultimately had a large part of his lower jaw removed and replaced with metal. It was a hard time. But he was a funny guy and used humor to help him through the treatment. It helped. During his recovery he decided to use his humor to help others like him. He started to have an annual event at the hospital called “Laugh Well”. He believed that making people laugh, even in their darkest time, made them better, at least for a moment, and perhaps longer.

The church can be much like a hospital. And people can be much like Alan King. People might, like King, find themselves in church, not thinking they really need to be there. They might be “spiritual but not religious” and so have no need for any “religious” community. But if they pay attention, such folks might find that they do have a need for some religious “treatment”. They might find that they have a spiritual “illness” that can only be treated in a community of faith. The treatment plan might be as simple as an hour in that place one time a week. When they recover, they, like King, can be a source of healing to others as well. That is what a church is … and does.

In our world, there is a much chaos, pain, frustration and anger. That is our communal illness. The church can be a hospital to treat it. Come and hear about it Sunday, July 8 at 9:30 when Pastor Jeff preaches “What is a Church?” based on Ephesians 4: 17-32. Come and see.

God and Country: Thoughts on Being Good Citizens While Remaining Disciples of Jesus

1 Peter 2:13-17

13For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution,* whether of the emperor as supreme, 14or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. 16As servants* of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 17Honor everyone. Love the family of believers.* Fear God. Honor the emperor.

To start off the message on this Sunday before Independence Day, I want to read from the document that … well … declared our independence from England.

The Declaration of Independence

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

So Peter says: Honor the emperor.

The Emperor, Nero to Peter, was Rome.

And Rome was the government.

So Peter is basically saying, “Honor the government.”

But the Declaration of Independence says: … it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish [the government], and to institute new Government

Do you sense a conflict?

As disciples of Jesus, can we reconcile these two divergent views?

Are we to blindly submit to any and all government policies in order to honor the government?

Or can we object, criticize, protest and even revolt, the way our founders revolted against their government in England?

Are we about to celebrate a holiday that commemorates a violation of scripture?

To answer that we first need to understand Peter’s world when he wrote this letter.

The letter was written to Christians living in the Roman Empire.

The Christian community was a small minority in the Roman world.

It was marginalized and subjected to a fair amount of hostility and distrust.

There was also some serious persecution by Nero.

Christians believed themselves to be citizens of God’s kingdom living in a foreign land.

Unwelcome aliens.

They needed some advice on how to live their lives as disciples of Jesus in a hostile world.

So Peter gives them some in this letter.

I think maybe Peter, good Jew that he was, remembers the stories of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.

While exiled in Babylon, the Jewish people had two principal goals.

Survive as a people.

And maintain their identity as Jews.

To accomplish these goals, Jews had to be good citizens of Babylon.

To stay alive, they needed to live in a way that would not bring themselves to the attention of the government to the extent possible.

They needed to “fit in” so long as “fitting in” did not require them to live contrary to their faith.

So what does that look like?

Kind of like Daniel and his three friends.

They were Jews captive in Babylon.

Yet they worked for the government as clerks for Nebuchadnezzar, the emperor.

And they honored him, and obeyed his laws.

Until Nebuchadnezzar told them to violate their Jewish ethics and rituals.

It was then that all four of them refused.

They did not honor Nebuchadnezzar’s governance right then.

Peter might have been thinking along these lines.

How do I know?

Peter faced a similar challenge shortly after Pentecost.

The Temple council commanded him to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, but Peter refused to obey.

That certainly was not honoring their governance at that moment.

So how do we decide?

Emilio A. Nunez, is a Salvadoran theologian and is a proponent of something called  “liberation theology”.

In an article in Christianity Today, Nunez said:

Within the scope of those human matters that are relative, political systems have their place in society; but the Christian is not called to confer on any of those systems the quality of the absolute, because that which is absolute is found only in God. Furthermore, without pretending to have a false political neutrality, the Christian should always reserve the right to criticize any political system, whether of the left or of the right, in the light of the Word of God.

I also think that Nunez has hit the theological nail on the head.

In matters that are relative, we give the government the benefit of the doubt.

But when it is a matter of faith, maybe we don’t give the government the benefit of the doubt.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived this dilemma in the time of Hitler.

This is how he interpreted how the church and state interact when the church or an individual cannot reconcile what the state is doing:

There are three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state:

In the first place, it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e., it can throw the state back on its responsibilities.

In the United States we would ask: “Is it Constitutional?”

Second, it can aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community, “Do good to all people.”

The church must provide assistance to those the state has ignored or rejected.

The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself. Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order.

This is open protest.

This is hitting the streets and crying out for justice.

This is proclaiming that the government is failing its obligations.

This is the Declaration of Independence.

I think the founders of our country were in complete agreement with Nunez and Bonhoeffer.

I think that is why they did what they did.

I think that is also what Peter is saying.

So I believe there is no conflict between the words of the Declaration of Independence and Peter’s instruction.

I am glad, too, because now we can feel good about celebrating our independence from England and the revolution that accomplished it.

I will be eating a hotdog and maybe shooting of a bottle rocket or two.

But we need to go back a moment.

Where do we draw the line?

How do we decide?

Here is one example.

When I first got here back in 2014, we wanted to put up an electric sign down at the bottom of the hill that would alert the people driving by about events and special services at the church.

But, there is a local building code that must be obeyed.

And that code said – no electric sign!

So – we have no electric sign.

We are honoring the government of Bethel Park.

Bethel Park is not persecuting the church when it sets up the code, nor is the church compromising when it obeys the code.

But Bethel Park has no right to control the pulpit or the mission of the church.

To do so would be an attempt to force us to violate our Christian ethics and rituals.

At that point we need to refuse to obey.

That is what Peter is saying.

Peter is saying that, as much as possible, we should seek to cooperate with the government and obey the law; but when it comes to our faith and ethics, we are to compare the government’s actions with the way Jesus teaches us to live.

If the government asks us to live contrary to the Jesus way, we are to choose Jesus.

To Bonhoeffer, this ultimately led to his joining a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and bring down the German government.

In some respects, that is what our founders did when they declared our independence from England.

But when we feel compelled to act in violation of the law in order to uphold our faith, we do so also knowing that we will have to pay a price.

Bonhoeffer, Daniel and his three friends and Peter accepted the consequences of their disobedience.

Daniel went to the lions, his friends to the fiery furnace.

Bonhoeffer died in a German concentration camp.

Peter was crucified.

They each accepted their fate at the hands of the human government knowing that they were being obedient to God.

As disciples of Jesus, we must exercise discernment in our relationship to human government.

There are times when the right thing to do is to simply obey, be patient, and work within the system.

But there are other times when we must disobey so as to remain faithful to Jesus.

Happily, most often we simply work within the system to change the governing party and enact different laws.

So do not turn up your noses at politics!

If you want to honor the emperor, as Peter would say, get out and vote!

If our emperor is our tripartite democracy, in order to honor it, we must vote.

To fail to vote is to dishonor the government and so violate Peter’s pronouncement.

What does all this mean for us today?

Again let’s look at what Peter says.

As servants* of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 17Honor everyone. Love the family of believers.* Fear God. Honor the emperor.

See those words?

Honor everyone!

Love your neighbors.

Love the family of believers!

Be faithful to your Christian community.

Fear God.

Maintain your identify as a child of God.

Honor the emperor.

Be a good citizen, in light of the above.

That sounds like what the founders said.

That is what Peter said.

And while we are not a marginalized and persecuted minority in this country, these are still good words for us.

When we celebrate a baptism; when we come to this table, we are proclaiming ourselves to be disciples of Jesus; citizens of the kingdom living as aliens in a foreign land.

Being good citizens while being faithful to God.

So, let’s celebrate.

Have a great Fourth of July!

Amen.