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"Acts 25: Church and State" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC, September 9, 2018

posted Sep 10, 2018, 11:33 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Every February, politicians, lobbyists, and a few religious leaders come together in Washington for the National Prayer Breakfast.  The New York Times refers to the breakfast as “similar to the World Economic Forum, except that Jesus is the organizing principle.”  The prayer breakfast this last winter garnered more attention than most when it came to light that Maria Butina, the accused Russian spy, used the event as part of her recruitment of top government contacts (giving new meaning to the search for a Higher Power).  But even without Butina, we’d want to question this event and the ways in which Church and State interact in America today.

Two moments this summer reminded me of the importance and disagreement over this question.  

  • In June, the Supreme Court punted on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in which a Christian baker claimed the right to discriminate against customers because of his faith.  Jack Phillips claimed that he followed a higher law, God’s law, that exempted him from normal laws about non-discrimination.

  • Then Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 to defend the Trump policy of separating children from their asylum-seeking parents at the US border.  “I would cite to you,” he said, “the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”  In other words: faithful Christians can’t question the government.

Just pause for a moment to think about these contrasting views of how Church and State, or if you prefer faith and politics, relate.  Both Jack Phillips and Jeff Sessions are Christians, part of the Southern Baptist tradition. Phillips claims faith means he can annul any law in conflict with his faith; Sessions claims faith means we must all submit to the law.  Does faith raise us above the law or make us submit to it?

Jack Phillips and Jeff Sessions in these comments represent two classic ways Christians have responded to the State: either trying to withdraw into our own sphere or legitimizing state power.  And we can see these moves on both the liberal and conservative sides of Christianity. Liberal Christians who shelter undocumented immigrants are like Jack Phillips - conscientious objectors to laws in conflict with their faith; and likewise, when liberal Christians ask if a Supreme Court nominee will respect precedent we can sound like Jeff Sessions.

Our reading from Acts this morning suggests a third way to understand the relationship of Church and State.  But first some background: before the scene we heard today, Paul traveled to Jerusalem and tried to preach about Jesus in the Temple.  The religious authorities charged him with crimes against the people and a crowd prepared to lynch him. But the Romans interceded, arresting him.  While booking Paul, the Romans learned Paul held citizenship by birth, so they placed him under house arrest while they figured out what to do with him.

Two years later, a new governor arrived and he decided to settle the case of Paul.  Governor Porcius Festus faced a difficult situation: the religious authorities in Jerusalem wanted Paul killed and many in the area resented Roman rule.  Acquiescing to the religious authorities might appease the crowd, making his rule easier. But Paul’s Roman citizenship meant Festus had to tread lightly.  So Festus hit on a novel solution: transfer the trial from the Roman city of Caesarea to the Judean city of Jerusalem, which would give the religious authorities a better chance to kill Paul.  Festus asked Paul to agree to transferring his case over to Jerusalem.

But Paul refused to play along.  First, he asserted his innocence; “I have in no way committed an offence.”  And then, he reminded Festus of his Roman citizenship.  “I am appealing to the emperor’s tribunal; this is where I should be tried.”  Festus wanted to do the easy and expedient solution by giving Paul to the religious authorities.  But Paul held Festus accountable to Roman law.

The authors of our summer study on Acts call this the third option for how the Church and State can relate.  Some think Christians ought to be “conscientious objectors” who withdraw and isolate from the State. Others think Christians ought to legitimate and accept State power.  But Paul’s actions suggest another option: the Church can hold the State to account. Martin Luther King took this approach: he demanded America live its creed, “liberty and justice for all.”

This position sounds most like what we try to do in the United Church of Christ: holding the State accountable to its ideals.  And yet, as I think about all of these approaches to the question of Church and State, I’m struck by the way they assume the primary purpose of the Church is to decide right and wrong.  Jack Phillips thinks the right thing to do requires him to withdraw from the State; Jeff Sessions thinks the right thing to do requires subordination to the State; and Paul asserts the right thing to do is to hold the State accountable.  While these positions differ, in each of them the Church acts - to borrow a metaphor - like an umpire calling balls and strikes.

But is that the primary role of the Church, to ump the game of life, deciding right and wrong?  The problem with the Church as umpire comes because we Christians don’t all agree on the rules of the game.  Comedian Michael Che of Saturday Night Live fame pointed this out once in a routine he called “Confusianity.”  In a bit on hell, he said he thought the bomber of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando should clearly go to hell.  But, Che said, imagine what happens when he gets there. The bomber turns to someone else and asks, “What are you in for?”  “Sodomy.” Even now, we Christians can’t really agree on the rules of the game: what Jeff Sessions calls obedience to divinely ordained government many others consider an inhumanity.

Beyond the impossibility of umping a game when we can’t agree on the rules, I began to wonder what the focus on right and wrong does to our relationships.  If faith is primarily about deciding right and wrong, then what happens when other people disagree with me?

I realize that makes the question much too abstract; so I want to reframe it by looking at the curious case of Alan Dershowitz, a retired law professor from Harvard who became famous for his defense of civil liberties and now regularly appears on Fox News in support of President Trump.  You might have seen him on Hannity and Friends calling the Mueller investigation the legal equivalent of a colonoscopy. (He meant this as a put down of Mueller, dismissing him for doing something icky and unpleasant; but isn’t the purpose of a colonoscopy to check for a cancerous growth that can kill the body?)

Alan Dershowitz complained that his neighbors shunned him for his views.  He spends his summers on Martha’s Vineyard, down on the south end of the island, the town of Chilmark, where he can be found playing checkers on the porch of the general store with friends who affectionately call him “Dersh.”  Now, having defended Trump, he says people shun him: not inviting him to parties, not even looking him in the face, treating him to McCarthy era tactics of shame.

Is this how we treat people we disagree with?  And what does that mean for our future?

Well, I decided to investigate when I went to Martha’s Vineyard this summer.  The Vineyard is an unmistakably liberal place. President Obama and his family were visiting the same time I was; on the way to my sister’s house I saw many signs celebrating the Obamas.  So I could imagine liberals on the Vineyard looking away from “Dersh.”

But down in Chilmark people tell a different story then Alan Dershowitz.  While many people around America see him defending President Trump, people in Chilmark see him on the nude beach.  They’ve seen the full Alan Dershowitz. Not even an amicus brief in sight. And so now people feel they’ve seen enough of the Dersh.

As I stood on the porch of the Chilmark general store, I wondered: what’s true?  Is Alan Dershowitz shunned because he’s an “all-out” Trump supporter or just because he’s too often “all-out”?  And as I asked myself that question, the Dersh’s friend Rudy helpfully explained, “truth isn’t truth.”

If the Church is meant to umpire the State, then we need to know if it was right for Dershowitz to defend Trump or wrong for him to go naked in public.  But what if we saw a different fundamental role for the Church?

As I look back on the Book of Acts that we studied this summer, I’m aware of an unspoken theme that runs through so many of the stories: how can people who disagree learn to live together?  Paul himself struggled with how to relate with people he disagreed with. At times he lifted up a vision of God creating a community that transcended our disagreements: “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.”  But at other times he fought with partisan bitterness, calling those who disagreed with him dogs and mutilators of the flesh.

In one tragic moment of the Book of Acts, Paul came to disagree with his best friend Barnabas.  Paul wanted to return to some of the congregations they founded together. Barnabas agreed; but he wanted to bring along a man named John.  John had previously traveled with Paul but had, in Paul’s words, “deserted them in Pamphylia.” Paul and Barnabas fought and angrily separated; Paul choosing another companion and Barnabas setting off with John.  I don’t want us to overlook the challenge of this moment in Paul’s life: focused on being an umpire of right and wrong, Paul sacrificed his dearest friendship on the altar of his own certitude.

A very different example comes from earlier in the Book of Acts.  The religious authorities imprisoned Peter and a mob gathered with the aim of killing him.  In that moment, Rabbi Gamaliel, a Pharisee, a member of a partisan group opposed to Peter, rose and spoke in his defense, saving his life.

We are at a deeply divided point in our nation’s history.  And however the election in November turns out, a significant percentage of our country will feel it lost, millions of people.  I don’t think we need more umpires of right and wrong in that moment, but rather people who can help us imagine and to learn how to practice forgiveness and reconciliation.  What if we saw the role of the Church as being the work of reconciliation in our deeply divided State? To be like Rabbi Gamaliel? Our deep divisions can’t simply be healed by winning; instead, we need to create a way for people to come home.

Now this doesn’t mean we can’t tell Alan Dershowitz to stay off the beach or to reconsider his legal advice.  But it does mean looking for how we can be one family together.

A few years ago, we took a year to study and reflect on White Privilege as part of our commitment to racial equity.  One week in the group I participated in, two men from a conservative evangelical congregation arrived, one black, the other white.  As we went through the study guide, it became clear that the ideas about racism we were discussing were new concepts (for the white guy; not news to the black guy).  And I remember several awkward conversations over the few weeks they attended. Yet, I was proud of our church folks, who were clear-eyed in facing the reality of discrimination but also open-hearted in making space for someone considering this history for the first time.

I want us to be that kind of congregation: clear-eyed about right and wrong and open-hearted enough to keep bringing people home to each other.

Alleluia and Amen.