Separation, Yes-No

Mark 6: 1-13    Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

2 Samuel 5: 1-5, 9-10   July 5, 2015

“So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.

Prayer:  May your Spirit be felt among us, O God, as we witness to your holy presence and guidance.  Amen.

Happy Independence Day!  I hope you had a good weekend so far!  Something strange is happening over in China.  In the Zhejiang Province, ever since December 2013 up to May of this year, police with large cranes have often shown up without warning and ripped down crosses off Christian churches, or they have demolished prominent church sanctuaries.  After May, the government ceased tearing down crosses, but issued a ban on all crosses atop churches through a new religious structure building code.  Crosses could only be affixed to the side of the building and in the same color as the building itself, making it difficult to see.  No official reason was given for these actions, but it’s not difficult to see that the it stems from the growth of Christianity in Communist China, which is “officially” an atheist country.

However, just recently, a group of Protestant churches in the province are engaging in civil disobedience.  They are fighting back.  Some church members have come to the church in the middle of the night and re-attached the cross or built a new cross.  And, other churches have written an open letter protesting the government’s interference, calling the new rules prejudicial and unjust (“China knocks down crosses, faithful put them back up,” from The Christian Science Monitor, 4/29/2015, The Christian Century, July 8, 2015, p. 16).

Isn’t that something?  Sounds awfully strange to us, doesn’t it?  That’s because in our way of life, our government is prohibited doing stuff like that.  Congress cannot establish a religion or take an official religious stance, in support or against any religion.  We call that separation of church and state, and this concept is embedded in the very fabric and culture of our government and society.  The first amendment to our US Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  This is where the separation of church and state is a good and vital thing.  We  believe in it, we live by it, and it prevents strange situations like what happened in China from occuring.

However, as I reflect upon the health and well-being of our nation, I believe that while the separation of church and state gets my “yes’ vote, the separation of God and the state, or God and our nation, does not. There is a difference between separation of church and state, and a separation of God and state.

The Church is the tool that God uses in partnership with humanity to do the work and will of God on the earth.  It’s one of the places where we practice our religion, where we live our faith with words and with action, where we share and live the good news that God’s saving grace is undeserved yet given extravagantly and abundantly.  The state is prohibited from telling us how to do any of that or establishing an “official” way for us to do that.  So, yes, church and state should be separated.

But, the living God is the source of all life.  God calls us, I believe, to be a part of a verdant, just, and life-giving society, where equality in the community is granted to all, where God’s power of love is lifted up and lived, and the love of power is held in check, where forgiveness is practiced, not just talked about.  God has taught us these ways of life through Jesus, the prophets and apostles, and through countless others. 
So, separate God from our nation?  I say “no.”

I profoundly believe that the health and well-being of our nation depends upon its citizens, its leaders, its role models, its youth, and its children constantly learning to have faith in God, always growing in understanding about what it means to trust in God, and regularly striving to walk in God’s ways.

Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable racism, incessant terrorism, of utmost tragedy, there is a need to practice God’s ways.  We saw that play out as Dylann Roof was welcomed to a Bible study in Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, SC.  We saw it play out

further when in their grief, the families and church members of the victims of Dylan Roof’s gunfire said they would pray for him, and they offered him forgiveness.

My friends, we have to pray for Dylann Roof, too, and we have to forgive him.  This is God’s way. And, if you can’t do that right away, then please pray that you might have the faith and energy to do it soon.

Whatever you do, I encourage you… strive not to turn your back on God’s ways, but follow in the ways that are handed on to us.  The more we more we turn our backs on God as a society the more we will lose faith in God’s power in our lives, I think.  Jesus encountered this lack of faith in his hometown.  Yes, Jesus could cure a few, but his power was minimized because of their lack of faith in God.

Well, just as Jesus encountered a lack of faith in his hometown, I ask are we encountering the same lack of faith on a much wider scale… in our nation these days?  In other words, are we finding that the more we devalue what God has taught us through Jesus’ life, words, and ministry, the more we are struggling with fun violence? Are we finding the more we ignore scripture passages about love, justice, peace, and good will toward God, neighbor, and self, then the more we will distrust the goodness of people? Then the more we will struggle with gun violence? with shootings in schools and churches? with racism? with religism? with homophobia? with complicity in systemic socio-economic depravity and poverty that many in our nation face? and a whole lot more?

Should we have separation of God and nation? Can we afford to take God out of the equation?

In my opinion, there should be no separation between God, our faith in God and our nation. So, for the health and well--being of our nation and its people, I believe these are to be wedded together in covenant and love.

Thankfully, there are places where we can spot where God and the nation are wedded together in covenant and love.  First, what better place to spot it than at King David’s anointing as the King over all of Israel?  Very clearly David was called to be the shepherd over all of Israel, which included both Judah and Israel.  David united the two nations together making the monarchy.

But notice how God was involved in all of it.  God called David.  The people knew God called him.  And before the Lord, a covenant was made between them.  And as king, David prospered and all of Israel prospered, too.  “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him,” says the text.  God and faith in God were not separated from King David or from Israel, as a nation.  So it should be in our nation, too, I think.

That is why I thought it was so fitting and moving to listen to President Obama eulogize the nine people who were killed in the Charleston shooting, and then sing “Amazing Grace.”  It appeared to me that faith in God and our nation were wedded together in covenant and love as our President of spoke with faith about God’s grace and sang about it, too.

And Friday a week ago, the God-centered ideas that all people are created equal, the idea that everyone in the community be granted the same rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as articulated by founders of our nation, the concept ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ as is spoken in our “Pledge of Allegiance,” all those values embedded in the very fabric of our society and government were upheld as the Supreme Court ruled that same sex marriage is legal everywhere.

These are some of the places, I think, where we can spot God and our nation not separate, but, wedded together in covenant and love.  May God help us in not only making this concept not sound strange to our ears and to the ears of our nation, but may it grow deep within for the health and well-being of our nation, and all of us, its people. Amen.