A Sermon for Sunday, July 7, 2019 by Pastor Peter Christ
[There is no audio recording of this sermon as we were outside for the morning.]
One of the great traditions of the small Montana town in which we lived and operated our restaurant was how they celebrated the 4th of July. On the 2nd, 3rd and 4th actually, the town would host the “Home of Champions Rodeo.” And to add to the festivities, there would be a parade, at noon each of the three days, right down the main street. Celebrating rodeo culture meant lots of horses and horse-drawn wagons were a big part of the parade. Being in the heart of ranching country also meant lots of old tractors and shiny big pickups too.
Because it was a great opportunity to promote a business or an organization for very little cost, the parade would include plenty of entries and floats throwing candy, t-shirts and promotional Frisbees into the crowds lining the street. Most-years, I was lucky to drive whatever hot rod my father-in-law had in his garage that year and hung a banner off the tailgate to advertise my restaurant.
Not every year, but with some frequency, the local beer distributor would arrange for the famous Budweiser Clydesdales to come, which is a really impressive site to behold. Six teams, 12 horses, would pull a giant beer wagon with two drivers and one Dalmatian riding along. Then the three semi- trailers that transported the team around the country would follow behind.
If it was an election year, which it always seems to be, there would be a healthy number of candidates riding in the back of convertibles or marching with a group of supporters in matching t-shirts. The Forest Service always came with one of their big wild-land fire trucks, and featuring some unlucky intern having to wear a Smokey-the-Bear costume and wave to the crowd.
The parade was always led by the local police force and the fire department would bring up the rear with every single one of their polished emergency vehicles shining their lights. All-in-all, an amazing hours-long display of Americana, farm, family and fun, patriotism and commercialism, civic pride and huckleberry pie all wrapped up together and rolling down the street.
Perhaps you’ve watched or participated in a parade like the ones I was a part of for so many July 2nd, 3rd, and 4ths, maybe even just in the past few days. I can’t think of a spectacle that brings to light better the vocational identities of our neighbors than a parade on the 4th of July. And central to the celebration are the variety of public servants that provide for our communities in so many ways.
As children of God, I think it’s helpful that we take time to lift up those who serve the public good, to take a moment to celebrate their efforts and to honor their sacrifices for the sake of all creation. Not long after the ELCA, our Lutheran church-wide denominational organization, was formed from its predecessor bodies, the church began adopting its social statements. These are the primary teaching documents of the church and a collection of statements that delineate what we believe the church is to be about and how it should live out its calling.
One of the first of these social teachings in 1991 was the statement on “Church in Society” which rightly committed the church to sustain and support its members in their baptismal vocations to serve God and neighbor in daily life. This is to be done in a variety of ways, one of which is to: “promote sound, critical, and creative citizenship and public service among its members.”
It is part of every Christian’s baptismal identity to serve God and neighbor and to understand that serving one is integral to serving the other. One can’t love God if one doesn’t love their neighbor. And one can’t love their neighbor without God experiencing the same.
Martin Luther understood this deeply as he was laying out the tenants of his theology that we subsequent Lutherans hold so dearly. There are two interdependent kingdoms, the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the world, or the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. Each child of God lives as a subject fully in both, Luther argued, but the gift of this reality is that to thrive in one kingdom is to thrive in the other; they are deeply connected.
Luther knew that God’s vision for the world would best be realized in how each Christian served their neighbor and some, in particular, were called to serve the public in some very direct ways. The politicians and judiciary who serve through governing and provide for a just society. Those who protect whether its police officers, firemen or soldiers. Those who provide for a safely habitable and navigable world, building and trade inspectors, road engineers and maintenance crews. Each of these disciplines could and should be shaped by each person’s calling to serve their neighbor and to care for the other.
For centuries before Luther and certainly in the centuries to follow, the role of the church in society would become corrupted. Church leaders would assert their privilege as guardians of the kingdom of God to also be guardians of the kingdom of man. Similarly, there have been times when the leaders of men would assert control over the church. Inevitably, it was in times like these that the service of neighbor was rarely a motivating force and almost always a lost outcome.
Here in the United States, our deeply religious forefathers used this sinful reality to shape our deeply held conviction that there remain an important separation between the church and the state. While this was in part seen as a way to keep one’s practice of religion free from control or direction by the government, the unfortunate by-product is that public servants, perhaps all-too-easily, lose sight the true purpose of their God-granted and God-serving callings.
Blessedly however, in this country, serving your neighbor, whether they are next door or on the other side of world, means serving the state. We are a nation of neighbors. Our neighbors lead us, our neighbors protect us, our neighbors watch out for us, our neighbors provide for us when we are in need. As children of God, we live on both side of this neighborhood street. We each need and we each provide. We each want and we each give. We each are loved and we each love. My prayer this day is that we all take a moment to give thanks for the countless public servants who help us to love our neighbors and love God in the process. And that each of these servants see how God is active in their efforts.
You know… earlier when I was describing the parades that used to roll down the main street of our little town in Montana, I mentioned that the fire department always brought up the rear. Their fleet of modern and well-maintained emergency vehicles was always a great reminder of how much our community supported and valued its public servants. As a resident and a business owner, I took some pride in knowing that my taxes helped to provide for this truly important public good. As Jesus followers, it’s helpful to remember that the parade that celebrates the collective work of the Kingdom, not any one individual but the combined contributions of our community, is the parade worthy of our participation and our viewing.
At the end of the parade in our little Montana town was an even more powerful reminder of the true work of the public servant and it was the real caboose of this parade. Following behind all the flags, all the candidates, all the candy-throwing pickups, all the confetti-tossing floats and all the horse-drawn wagons, came Kenny, one of the longest-serving members of the public works staff. Kenny drove the street sweeper, and his God-loving calling was to come behind everyone else and pick up our Clydesdale-sized messes.
Thanks be to God this day for Kenny and those like him who lovingly do the work of the Kingdom of Heaven as they follow the parade here on the Kingdom of earth. Amen.