Thoughts on faith, musings on Scripture, sermons from Falls Church Presbyterian Church, plus sermons and postings from "Pastor James," my blog while pastor at Boulevard Presbyterian in Columbus, OH.
(Note to FCPC members: this blog is meant for a wider audience than just FCPC. The things discussed here usually speak of the larger church and not FCPC in particular.)
I’ve always loved July 4th. As a kid we would go to the lake for the day, swimming and water skiing, and then taking a 30 minute boat ride to watch a big fireworks display. When I got older, I remember going to uptown Charlotte for the big fireworks show they shot off one of the tall buildings and coordinated with one of the local radio stations so you could watch and listen to a sound track.
The grand finale was always the 1812 Overture. But no Forth of July medley would have been complete without Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.” Smith introduced the song just prior to World War II, and it quickly became a patriotic favorite, so much so that some lobbied for it to replace the Star Spangled Banner as our national anthem.
Kate Smith has been dead for decades, but many people still associate her with the song. The song itself enjoyed a resurgence of sorts after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Members of the US Senate sang it from the steps of the capital after the attack. It even replaced “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch at some baseball parks.
After the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the phrase “God bless America” began showing up on yard signs, often written in red, white, and blue, or displayed on a background of the US flag. Variations on this theme also showed up such as “God bless our Troops.”
If you know the lyrics to “God Bless America,” you know it is a simple prayer. It isn’t militaristic. It doesn’t call down God’s ire on any others. It simply asks for God’s guidance and blessing. But in those yard signs, and perhaps even in the military-style, march music of the song, it is easy to move beyond a simple request for blessing to a call for God to bless us and curse our enemies. Now surely God is on the side of good and against evil, but does that means God is our God and not theirs? Are we always in the right? Does God wear red, white, and blue?
Does God belong to one nation and not another? People of the ancient world thought so. Indeed the world in which Israel lived thought of gods as local divinities. Every group had its own god and all wars were holy wars because they were contests between the adherents of different gods. And whoever won the battle or war must have had the mightier god.
Israel comes to know the God they call Yahweh in this setting. And at first they think of Yahweh just like other folks think about their tribal gods. God is for Israel and against their enemies. There are plenty of stories in the Bible where God is described just so. But as Israel comes to know this Yahweh better, images of a tribal god begin to break down. Yahweh isn’t just their god, but is God of all creation. And Yahweh doesn’t care just about Israel. Indeed, God’s special relationship with Israel is for the sake of those others. When Abraham first meets God, Yahweh says, “I will bless you and make your name great… And in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”
The prophet Isaiah describes Israel as God’s servant, words the New Testament writers later apply to Jesus. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant… I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” And Jesus himself embodies this, sending his followers to carry the good news to “all nations.”
Yet despite all this, images of a tribal God persist. Many Americans have a great deal of difficulty separating “God and country,” assuming that the two simply go together. America is a great and wonderful country. And some of our most appealing attributes are drawn from Christianity. But if loving God and loving country are two sides of the same coin, does that mean the God of the Bible, the God seen most fully in Jesus, is our tribal god?
So perhaps providence has placed today’s Old Testament reading in the lectionary. Every three years it shows up near July 4th, this year on the day itself. And what a curious little story it is. In the midst of many stories about the prophet Elisha, we meet a fellow called Naaman, a general in the armies of Aram. He is a powerful and important man, but he has some sort of skin disease which will not go away. But after we’ve been introduced to this Naaman, nothing else in the story happens quite the way you might expect.
The story plays havoc with expectations about how God works and where real power lies. A captured Israelite slave points Naaman toward possible healing. Naaman assumes that such power must go through channels, and any prophet able to heal must be in service to the king. And so he goes to Israel’s king with a great deal of wealth to buy a healing. But the king of Israel presumes it is a ruse meant to manufacture an insult that will justify an attack. The Israelite king doesn’t think to summon Elisha. Perhaps he is so focused on issues of us versus them that it never occurs to him that God might want to heal Naaman.
Nonetheless Elisha summons Naaman, who then takes offense when proper pomp, pageantry, and ritual aren’t followed. And for a second time, it takes unnamed servants to point the powerful Naaman toward God’s healing.
And so finally God does heal this foreigner, and an enemy at that. No doubt there were those in Israel who had prayed that God would strike down the Arameans, including their commander Naaman. But instead, God heals Naaman.
In much the same way, people of Jesus’ day expected God to send a Messiah who would strike down the Romans and the commanders of their armies. But instead Jesus heals a Roman centurion’s slave and praises the centurion’s faith. He tells a parable featuring a hated Samaritan as the hero, and tells his followers to proclaim forgiveness to all nations.
But despite the witness of Elisha, despite the God we meet in Jesus, we are still drawn to the image of a tribal God. Not that we all belong to the same tribe. Some want a red, white, blue God. Some fashion a Republican or a Democratic God. Some picture Jesus with blue eyes and blond hair, a member of their white tribe. Some people hate gays and so their god does, too. Some people hate liberals or conservatives, and so their gods do, too. But whatever tribal god we embrace, such a god seems far different from the God we say we have seen in Jesus who is, according to the Bible, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.
I don’t know about you, but I have realized over the years that I have a great deal of difficulty being in close relationship with people who have very different views and values than I do. Similar behavior likely accounts for why most people marry people who are a lot like them, why social groups are often made up of similar folks, and why churches can often be categorized as liberal or conservative, black or white, high society or working class. Such congregations seem to refute the Bible’s insistence that we are all one in Christ, but they fit well with my own tendency to think of God as a bigger and better version of me, sharing my difficulty being in relationship and loving people who are different from me. I know better logically and theologically, but still I presume that if God really loves me, then surely God must hate the folks I hate. Presto, my own tribal God.
We live in one of the greatest countries the world has every known. I pray that God will bless and guide us, and I have no doubt that God loves us. But the moment we decide that this means God loves others less, or worse, that God hates others, we’ve created a tribal God, an idol. But in Jesus we meet a very different God. And this Jesus calls me and you to proclaim God’s love to all the world, to bear witness to and demonstrate the coming dominion of God, that promised day when people from east and west, north and south, from every part of God’s creation shall join together in the great feast of the kingdom, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, American nor Irish, Jordanian nor Chinese, Iraqi nor Russian, Ethiopian nor Thai, where all are one, where all are welcome, and all are called children of God.