topical: the Wall of Separation
We are citizens both of America and of the kingdom of god.
Back at the beginning of summer, I preached the first of what I imagined would be three sermons on the separation of church and state. A not-to-popular topic here in the bible belt. More than just an academic, ivory tower kind of thing, I wanted it to be something that would give us perspective on living, here in the U.S. of A., in the twenty-first century. It seems that over the past generation or three, there’s been a trend of politicians sounding like preachers and preachers sounding like politicians, of political parties acting like denominations and denominations acting like political parties. And the country is the worse for it, becoming what the founders feared.
Last Memorial Day, I began with my own “aha” moment. The separation of church and state wasn’t meant to protect the church from the state, but just the opposite. Protecting the state from the church! The separation was intended to keep the nation from falling into the bias and the bigotry for which the church is well-known. It’s there to keep us from damning each other, from excommunicating each other, as Americans! On Independence Day, I described the relationship between the two. Mutually exclusive. Contradictory. One a nation of laws; the other a kingdom of love. Today, I’d like to make it a little more … personal. Not a philosophy. Not an ideal. But an identity. As Americans. As Christians.
There’s a tension that exists between church and state, between state and church. A push-pull. A stress-strain. And the temptation is, simply, to eliminate it. We can pick one side and ignore the other. Some denominations have chosen to do just that. To live only on the religion side. No holidays. No flags. No pledges. No salutes. Just bibles and hymns and prayers. We can do that or we can do what the popular do. Pretend the two are one and the same. Church is state and state is church. Being good Christians is being good Americans! And being good Americans is being good Christians! All we have to do is tear down the wall between the two and let it all mix and merge until we there’s no difference between the two. Between church and state. Between bible and constitution.
The good news is there’s no more tension. The bad news … there’s no more gospel, either. No more gospel and no more government. When that wall comes down, the state suffers. When that wall comes down the church suffers. And that’s where we are, today. That’s where we’ve been, for a while. While Mr. Gorbachev was told to tear down the wall, we Americans were dismantling another of our own … that wall of separation between church and state.
We’re Christians and we’re Americans. We’re Americans and we’re Christians. But here’s the catch. We’re not half one and half the other. We’re not hyphenated. Christian-Americans. American-Christians. We don’t have one foot in one world and one foot in another. We are 100% each! Totally American! Completely Christian! We don’t have to be a Christian to be an American. We don’t have to be an American to be a Christian. We are an American – a citizen of a nation of laws. We’re Christian – a citizen of the kingdom of love. I’m both! Y’all are both! At the same time! In the same moment!
There’s one set of duties and responsibilities because I was born in the U.S.A. One set of duties and responsibilities, one set of rights and privileges based on the constitution. And there’s another set of duties and responsibilities, of rights and privileges by virtue of my baptism, based on the gospel! Sometimes those two sets resonate. Or seem to. Sometimes they sound alike. Other times, not so much. And it reminds us. Church isn’t state. State isn’t church. Our mission isn’t to make one into the other. Church into state. State into church.
That’s one of the reasons we Lutherans have been able to make our way between the two. We are Americans. We vote. We pay taxes. We serve in the military. It’s not an either/or for us. But we’re, also, church. Called and gathered. Enlightened and made holy. We live in two worlds, two alternate realities. Side-by-side. Face-to-face. But as different as they can be. And we – each of us, all of us – are the only things that each world has in common. We live our life as Americans – native, naturalized. As citizens of the United States of America. We don’t have to be Christians to do that.
We don’t have to be Christians to oppose racism. We don’t have to be Christians to wear a facemask during a pandemic. We don’t have to be Christians to be caring – humanly speaking. Caring for the hungry and the homeless. For the wandering and the lost. All we have to do is read the Declaration! The Constitution! All we need is to be involved in our community! To act in principled and honorable ways! Truth is, most of the stuff we hear from pulpits, nowadays, is nothing more than that. Morals. Ethics. Principles.
But loving! Loving is something else, entirely! Turning the other! Going the extra! Doing unto! Picking up our cross! That’s something only the church understands! Something the state can’t do! Something-for-something! Quid pro quo! That’s what inspires nations! Omnia ad nihilum! Everything-for-nothing! That’s the heart and soul, the sum and substance of church! Charity! Mercy! Compassion! That’s the church’s reason-for-being!
Church doesn’t need state to be church! Church doesn’t need state to survive! Unless it was never really church, to begin with. And state doesn’t need church to be state. Not unless it wasn’t state, right from the start. And we are citizens of each. Citizens of both. Citizens of the United States of America! Citizens of a nation of laws! And! And! And! Citizens of the kingdom of god! Citizens of the kingdom of love!
For America, it’s a flag. For the church, it’s the cross. Each separate! Each distinct! But when the wall between them falls – or worse, when it’s dismantled one stone at a time – both suffer. Our duty as Americans is to make America the best America it can be. As a Christians, baptized and bornAgain, we’re not here to make America great. We’re here to be god’s! Right here! Right now! One nation? Under god? I guess that can be the state. This country as much as any. But that city-on-a-hill, that light-of-the-world, that salt-of-the-earth? That is only the church!
State is state. Church is church! It’s not the laws that make us us. My friends, it’s the love! For us, it’s always the love!