This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 15.34-16.13, Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5.6-17, Mark 4.26-34). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including handsomeness, green thumbs, passages for pastors, election and rejection, enthusiasm for the future, idolatry, confidence, human points of view, parable prejudices, and impossible possibilities. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Know How The Story Ends
“Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents… let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom, and never forget that, ‘where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,’ that means freedom always wins.”
So said Vice President Mike Pence during a live speech last night in the midst of the Republican National Convention.
And it’s nothing short of idolatry.
I’ve heard, time and again, to keep politics out of the church. And, frankly, I sympathize with those who don’t want to hear about political proclivities from the pulpit. I sympathize with those who believe the United States of America was founded on the separation of church and state.
And yet, when a politician like Mike Pence stands and speaks in such a way to insert the church into the midst of the state I, a member and leader of the church, can no longer remain silent.
He literally swapped out Jesus for “Old Glory” and “this land of heroes”. Which is just another way of saying: Mike Pence put forth a theology in which America is synonymous with the Kingdom of God.
Let the reader understand… Those things are truly mutually exclusive.
Back in July I put up a short, and to the point, tweet about how American Flags should not be present in church sanctuaries. I did so because America and the Church are not the same thing and when the Flag is present next to the Cross (or next to the altar) it synthesizes those things together.
I have, for a long time, felt the dissonance between the Flag and the Cross of Christ and I have written about it at length on a number of occasions. That I feel so strongly is a result of the Gospel’s insistence that our, that is Christians’, truest citizen can be found in heaven and that our truest freedom comes from Jesus, not the US of A.
As of writing this post, that tweet about the Flag in the sanctuary has been seen over 750,000 times and over 93,000 people have interacted with it.
The responses to the tweet, and to American Nationalism within the realm of the church, were fairly predictable.
On one side, people were deeply offended by the thought of the flag being removed from the sanctuary (or now calling into question Mike Pence using the Gospel as a political prop). I was implored to realize that the flag symbolizes sacrifice (a sacrifice akin to Christ’s?) and to take it away is unpatriotic (if not treasonous).
On the other side, people expressed their concern with the proximity of the Flag to the worship of God (or now to it being used as a political mechanism in a speech). They remarked that we, who call ourselves Christians, cannot serve two masters (America and God), that God doesn’t belong to any particular nation state (despite what politicians might tell us), and that to conflate these two thing together is a remarkable American phenomenon (we, that is Americans, are some of the only people for whom putting the Cross near the Flag is a regular occurrence).
In the last two weeks we, as a nation, have made it through both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. We’ve heard all about the importance of freedom and American exceptionalism but, for Christians, it’s vitally important to remember that our greatest freedom came long before George Washington, that our glory is far older than “Old Glory”, and that Jesus is not synonymous with the USA.
Our obsession with the Flag, and political ideologies, is what Jesus calls idolatry.
The United States of America, whether we like to admit it or not, has far more in common with Rome than it does with the Kingdom of God. We are the nation state that Jesus offers his words of condemnation. We’re just so drunk on our own self-righteousness to notice.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.
A lot of churches are going to close because of the Coronavirus. 2 weeks of no in-person worship, let alone 6 weeks, is a death sentence for a great number of churches that are living, economically, Sunday to Sunday.
And the closure of churches won’t even come close to the destruction of thousands of businesses across the country, as well as the rampant rise of unemployment that is expected in the new few weeks.
The fears of what the virus is doing to the American economy have garnered attention from the biggest talking heads on the news, to conversations over backyard fences between neighbors holding fast to social distancing. And yet, the total and all encompassing nature of the economy as the epitome of our attention is nothing new. We are obsessed with money and how money defines who we are.
Jesus calls that kind of obsession idolatry.
That’s not to say our fears are unwarranted. There will be a whole lot of people who will struggle sooner rather than later in terms of figuring out how to get food on the table, or even to keep the homes in which their tables are situated. But the fears about the economic impacts have begun to outweigh fears about our public health.
I have read so many articles and posts from individuals and agencies lambasting different groups for shutting down in the wake of the virus. Christians have berated their pastors for canceling church services, parents have harangued School Boards for shutting down schools, and now citizens are demonizing political leaders for executive orders temporary closing businesses until it becomes safe to gather together once again.
And, I get it. I understand the fear and the anxiety and even the anger. The church I serve will struggle mightily in the next few weeks to pay our pills, fund ministries, and maintain our payroll. Sadly, so much of who we are and what we do (or can do) is based on what we receive through the offering plate Sunday after Sunday.
And when you’re no longer allowed to meet on Sunday, those numbers start dropping rapidly.
However, the short term economic concerns should not compare at all to the long term mortality rates.
Which is all to say, we care more about money than anything else.
Case in point: When I meet with couples to go through premarital counseling I ask a few standard questions to get the conversation rolling like, “What was your last fight about?” and “What’s a challenge you two had to overcome together?” and (eventually) “Are you two currently sexually active with one another?” Those are weird questions in any situation, but the couples I’ve met with are often able to share truthfully where they are and what it has meant for them as a couple.
And yet, there’s another question I ask that is often met with blank stares: “How much money do each of you make?” It’s an important question to raise when considering marriage since the majority of divorces stem from economic disagreements. But couples on the cusp of marriage don’t want to talk about how much money they make. It has boggled my mind to hear talk of sexual histories, and screaming matches, but when the question of money comes up they don’t want to share anything.
Or another example: There’s a popular Youtube Channel called CUT in which they ask 100 random individuals the same question. And, more often than not, the questions are not the type of thing people willfully discuss. Some of the questions have included, “Have you ever tried drugs?” “How you ever cheated on a romantic partner?” “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
One by one they look into the camera and they answer. It’s kind of shocking not only to discover what people have done but also the fact that they are willing to admit it.
And yet, there’s one particular video where the question is, “How much money do you make?” and the majority of the participants refused to answer the question!
And one more example: A few people on the news this week suggested that we, as a country, should be willing to let 1% of our country die if it means keeping the country from economic collapse (The 1% stems from some figures saying that only 1% of people who contract the Coronavirus die from it, though the percentage actually appears to be far higher). 1% might not sound like much, but that would mean letting over 3 million Americans die to preserve our economy.
Or, let me put it a little differently: We have roughly 110-120 people in worship every Sunday at the church I serve. Do you think it would be right to kill someone in our church just so we could keep having church the following Sunday?
How we answer that question says a lot about who we are and what we believe.
Interestingly, Jesus has a whole lot to say about money, though preachers types like myself often get uncomfortable bringing up what the Lord had to say. Perhaps the most striking example is Jesus reminding the disciples that we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve Money and the Lord at the same time.
We have to make a choice.
Or, maybe another way to put it would be like this: If we are willing to let people die to save the economy for the rest of us, then the rest of us won’t have lives worth living.