Tumbling in the Sand
The texts for Sunday, October 16, 2011 are: Isaiah 45:1–7; Psalm 96:1–13; 1 Thessalonians 1:1–10; and Matthew 22:15–22
“I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.” – Isaiah 45:5-6
The texts this week make me think about a particularly Lutheran theological concept: God’s two kingdoms (you can read the Wiki article here). The idea being that God works in multiple ways in this world, but primarily two: through the church and through the government. Now, this is not the same idea as separation of church and state: no, in fact, it is a way of saying that God has something to say about the government and the government has a role to play in God’s rule of peace and justice. One of my professors, Dr. Timothy Wengert, used to describe the whole idea as God having two hands: one was the church that served the role of reminding us again and again of God and God’s love, justice, mercy and salvation (aka the gospel)—and our need for those things—and the other was the government that served the role of enforcing and enacting peace, justice, and equitable society so that the gospel may more easily be preached and that good may thrive. And the two have to work together: the government supporting the free and proper activity of the church and the church serving as a perpetual prophetic voice to the government to remind it of its job. The best summary image I ever got of this was from a Methodist colleague of mine who said: “You really need two hands to swing a baseball bat.”
So often the political climate of this country is about turning over the care of society to the churches while the government continually abdicates responsibility for providing basic infrastructure that cares for all in the society. We have this habit of suggesting that care for the least-of-these by the government is some sort of socialist plot against free market economy (as if this were merely some socio-political argument). The problem is, quite simply: God needs both hands to work. You cannot expect the churches’ continual bandaging of wounds (in the form of emergency food banks and other critically needed services) to fix the underlying problem that causes the wounds in the first place: rather, that is the work of development, of reform, of education, of large, societal change, and those things finally fall under the purview of a government cajoled by the prophetic (and thoughtful, trans-partisan) voice of the church.
So, how does this tie back to the text above? Well, the story goes in 2 Chronicles and Ezra, that Cyrus somehow found out about the words of Isaiah years and years after this prophetic voice had spoken and the words had laid under a layer of dust. He proclaimed in an edict that “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah.” (Ezra 1:2) Cyrus listened to the prophet’s words and Cyrus let the people of Israel go back and rebuild Jerusalem and God’s temple there (and provided necessary resources and protection for that work to happen). Without the prophetic voice, the people would have been left in exile. So, let us, as the church, as the prophetic voice speak. Let us speak up with all of those in exile: those who live without enough, those who have been stripped of dignity in the public forum, those who have been denied access to basic rights, and those whose voices are only now whispers of cries for help. Because our voices matter and our voices make a difference and because God has two hands.