The St. John’s Pulpit
St. John’s Baptist Church 300 Hawthorne Lane Charlotte, NC 28204
GOD WITHIN THE SHADOWS
Joshua 24:14-15; Matthew 22:15-22; (and ref. Micah 6:8 and John 17:6-21)
Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost, August 25, 2019
A Message Developed in Partnership with Ashley Hogewood*
by Senior Minister, Rev. Dennis W. Foust, PhD
Where was God on September 11, 2001?
Where was God when the Lost Boys of South Sudan were running for their lives?
Where was God when 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in Rwanda in 3 months?
Where was God during the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 – or
during the 2,192 mass shootings since Sandy Hook?
Where was God while 11 million people were murdered during the Holocaust?
6 million victims were Jewish;
5 million victims were disabled people, homosexuals, members of the resistance,
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Roma Gypsies.
1 million of those 11 million victims were children.
Where is God when wrong is on the throne and evil prospers?
We always affirm that God is at work reactively with the victims and the grieving.
We say The Living Loving God is within the shadows of suffering – REACTING to pain.
Yet, beloved God is also at work within the shadows proactively?
Every week, we hear people express feelings of helplessness in these days of negativity.
All political parties can allow evil to prosper while seeking to silence God’s vision.
We are frustrated by violence, racism, white supremacy disguised as nationalism, greed, hatred of immigrants, government controlled by lobbyists and accelerating polarization.
Yet, millions of people want to initiate reconciliation, healing and positive change.
God calls us beyond politics and gives us a mission flowing from God’s own heart.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian.
He proposed the relationship between government and God is like a deputy to a sheriff;
the deputy is a partner of the sheriff seeking to care for the people.
Of course, Bonhoeffer’s analogy assumes the sheriff’s vision is always trustworthy.
As a German, during Hitler’s regime, he learned how sheriffs can become evil.
Here in North Carolina, we know that whenever Deputy Barney Fife thought he knew more than Sheriff Andy Taylor, Mayberry had trouble.
Although we are committed to a separation of Church and State,
WE ARE MORE COMMITTED TO GOD’S VISION FOR HUMANITY.
Therefore, we live as stewards of God’s vision, investing our resources and energies in the work of Christ’s Church, continuing the ministry entrusted to us by Jesus.
We see God at work in the world; even when evil prospers, God is within the shadows.
Consider two ways in which you see God at work within the shadows proactively.
- YOU SEE EVIDENCE OF GOD WITHIN THE SHADOWS BY A GLANCE AT HISTORY.
In 1939, just before the outbreak of what we now call World War II, Bonhoeffer was in New York City at Union Theological Seminary. As war began, he was encouraged to stay in NYC and teach, thus protecting him from the evil going on in Germany. He described ‘sinister manipulation of many good people’ happening in his homeland. Bonhoeffer chose to return to Germany. He wrote these words:
“I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the people of Germany. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people...”
“I need not wear myself out in impotent zeal against all wrong, all misery that is in the world. But neither am I entitled self-satisfied security to let the wicked world run its course so long as I cannot myself do anything to change it …
GOD WAS AT WORK PROACTIVELY IN THE SHADOWS OF BONHOEFFER’S LIFE.
He wanted to do more than react to suffering; he wanted to save people from suffering.
Bonhoeffer knew salvation is more than an individualistic experience; it is global. Bonhoeffer returned to Germany. He taught young ministers how to be pastors during such a time of evil, victimization, and terror. He wrote about being an authentic community of faith and he wrote about The Cost of Discipleship. He was arrested and imprisoned for being part of the resistance. He and others were killed after a plot to assassinate Hitler failed. Would Bonhoeffer have been wrong if he’d stayed in America to teach theology?
The United States may have gained a theologian;
but God’s proactive work through his disciples would have lost a martyr.
Bonhoeffer’s dilemma of decision and dedication, in the 1940s, was nothing new.
Moses had to decide whether to stay in the secure luxury of Pharaoh’s palace or follow God’s will by becoming involved in the pain of God’s people, the slaves of Egypt.
Joshua had to decide whether to continue the culture of divided loyalties and half-hearted commitment among God’s people or call them to sincere spiritual renewal. This morning, we read his proclamation, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
The prophets had to decide whether to remain silent in times of polarization and government corruption or to proclaim God’s message of Peace with Justice.
Jesus of Nazareth had to decide whether to pray, “Not my will, but Thine.” AND, he knew you would face difficult moments. This is why Jesus prayed for you the prayer recorded in John 17, saying, “I do not pray that You would take them out of the world, but that You would keep them from evil.”
The early Church had to decide whether to bow down to rulers of the Roman Empire or bear the likeness of Jesus Christ. Those who worshipped Rome were called, ‘Augustiani.’ By naming Jesus Christ Lord of their faith, they were nicknamed, ‘Christiani.’
Blandina, a young servant girl was one of the thousands of martyrs in the first 300 years of the Church. She had to decide several times whether to deny her faith or be beaten, suspended on a stake, thrown to wild beasts, placed on the roasting chair, or confined in a net and thrown before a bull. Eventually, her ashes were joined with others and tossed into the Rhone River in Lyon, France. This story is not in The Viking River Cruise brochure. In those years, people in power tried to manipulate good people, suppressing commitment to God’s vision and the hope of resurrection among Christians; but here we are today.
Martin Luther had to decide whether to be silent amidst Church corruption or write his declarations of protest calling for spiritual reformation.
Thomas Helwys, a founder of the Baptist movement, had to decide whether to be silent allowing the King of England to rule over Christ’s Church or to take action, sending his words to King James declaring religious liberty to be the will of God for every person. He was imprisoned and killed for his stance.
Roger Williams had to decide if he could allow colonial governments to control his relationship with God or whether the separation of Church and State were so important that he begin a new colony providing religious freedom for all persons. So, today, in Providence, Rhode Island, you can enter the First Baptist Church in America.
St. John’s Baptist Church has had to decide numerous times, through our 97 years, whether we will allow the wrong affirmed by yesterday or God’s vision to guide us; whether to allow narrow streams of Church culture and the most shallow expressions of Baptist tradition to set our boundaries or whether we will unfurl our sails to actively faithfully follow the wind of God’s Spirit on a wide and deep ocean of inclusive and redemptive divine compassion for all – as incarnated in Jesus Christ, Lord of our faith.
Beloved, you see God at work proactively within the shadows by a glance at history.
And, you are making new history every day.
Moments of decision & dedication are placed before each of you – every day.
Every day, you must decide whom you will serve.
Jesus weighed-in on all matters eternal; he said, “You cannot serve two masters.”
YOU MUST DECIDE!
And this is a second way you can see God within the shadows.
2, YOU SEE EVIDENCE OF GOD WITHIN THE SHADOWS WHEN YOU DEDICATE YOUR LIFE TO SERVING OTHERS, SAVING SOME FROM PAIN AND SUFFERING.
YOU BECOME PARTNERS WITH GOD IN PROACTIVE WAYS.
You open your life for God to bring light into all the shadowy places within you.
You do not commit your life to complacency nor complicity in the face of evil.
You commit your life to proactive compassion in the presence of evil.
Jesus reveals God’s mission as prevailing over evil, erasing cultural elitism and racism, including the oppressed, welcoming the stranger, embracing the poor, uplifting the sinner, and transforming greed into stewardship.
Jesus moves us past nationalism to the Reign of God.
In the passage we read this morning from the Gospel of Matthew, did you notice who
approached Jesus with the trap question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or
not?” This question was not posed by Sadducees, Pharisees or Scribes.
This question was presented by ‘disciples’ of the Pharisees – minor league Pharisees.
They were Pharisees in potty training. Most likely, it was hoped Jesus would be surprised.
Alongside the trainee, Pharisees were the Herodians; Jews who wanted to protect their
positional power and financial accounts by supporting the Herodian dynasty.
Half-hearted manipulators of good people.
These two groups approached Jesus with a loaded question:
Do you know the meaning of a loaded question?
Here’s one: “Are you still beating your spouse?”
Try to merely answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to that question.
This helps you better understand Jesus’ position.
If Jesus said, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,” he would have broken
the Jewish law and lost credibility among the common people who followed him.
If Jesus said, “No, it is NOT lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,” he could be arrested
for insurrection and brought to trial for seeking to cause a rebellion against Rome.
JESUS SIDE-STEPPED THEIR QUESTION BY ASKING,
“WHOSE IMAGE IS ON THE COIN?” “Caesar’s,” they said.
Jesus magnifies citizenship under The Reign of God lifting it above any national citizenship.
JESUS PUTS YOUR POLITICAL PERSUASIONS AND NATIONAL CITIZENSHIP IN CONTEXT.
YOUR DISCIPLESHIP INVOLVES YOU IN GOD’S MISSIONAL VISION FOR THE WORLD. And this supersedes all other visions; all other party platforms; all other alliances.
Involve yourself in God’s vision!
Political party platforms may deny or affirm God’s vision, but they are not your focus.
JESUS SIDE-STEPPED THEIR QUESTION BY ASKING,
“WHOSE IMAGE IS ON THE COIN?”
BUT IN THEIR HEARTS, THEY HEARD JESUS ASKING ANOTHER QUESTION.
When Jesus asked, “Whose image is on the coin?”
The question they heard in their core was: WHOSE IMAGE IS ON YOU?
They knew the meaning of the Greek word ‘apodote;’
the word means “render; give back; return to the owner; restore; put things right.
This question is God’s gift to you every day – more valuable than gold:
WHOSE IMAGE IS ON YOU?
THIS IS NOT A QUESTION ABOUT POLITICS; THIS IS A QUESTION ABOUT DISCIPLESHIP!
Beloved, here’s the pinch in Jesus’ question:
YOU MUST DECIDE whether some political platform or party gets your soul.
Or, whether you will ‘render’ (put things right) by giving your life unto God day by day.
I DO NOT know exactly how this impacts you pragmatically.
Hopefully, it doesn’t mean martyrdom. Although real discipleship is always costly.
It may involve you rearranging commitments.
It may mean exploring ways to make your job, career, position, profession or retirement your Ministry in Daily Life.
It may mean learning how to live as a Vocational Disciple of Jesus.
What I DO KNOW is this: Because you have committed your life to be a disciple of Jesus Christ – an obedient follower of Jesus – learning how to implement his revelation of God’s heart in daily life – then –
You have committed your life to love God;
You have committed your life to love your neighbor;
You have committed your life to love one another;
You have committed your life to do justice;
You have committed your life to express kindness; and
You have committed your life to walk humbly with God.
In these ways, God works within the shadows of your life.
And, through you, God is working proactively within the shadows of this world.
When I was a boy, my parents took me to visit my great Aunt Blanche. She was blind.
Using her fingertips, she outlined my face, then said, “I see your father in you.”
WHEN PEOPLE LOOK AT YOUR LIFE – WHOSE IMAGE DO THEY SEE?
* This message was developed in partnership with Ashley Hogewood, a Life Deacon in the ministry of St. John’s Baptist Church of Charlotte, NC. During our Youth Mission Auction this past spring, Ashley supported our youth on mission by bidding on a message which he could discuss with me. He desired for me to prepare a message on the topic, ‘Render Unto.’ The idea sparking within Ashley was reflective of his lifelong questions, ‘how do I live my personal faith in the public square?’ ‘What are the implications of my commitment to Christ to be his disciple by taking up my cross and following his ways if I am also to be a citizen and a provider for my family?’ ‘Does God set the boundaries of obedience; or does God affirm and bless the boundaries I set for myself so long as I am not a lawbreaker or a self-centered troublemaker?’ ‘What does it mean to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and render unto God what belongs to God?’ My focus in this message is to present how Jesus’ response to the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians (Matthew 22:15-22) can offer us guidance for living active faith in these days of polarization and divisive politics with religious leaders and political supporters manipulating the masses. My intention is to offer a response to questions such as: ‘How can our commitment to and investments in God’s redemptive missional vision of love impact the lives of others through our ministries in daily life?’ ‘How do we ‘render unto’ The Living God our lives as ministry in daily life and what does this commitment accomplish?’