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Terry York speaks at Stagg-Tolbert Forum
Dr. York at Stagg-Tolbert Forum





"Render to Caesar, Render to God"
Stagg-Tolbert Forum for Biblical Studies
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Louisiana

Emmanuel Baptist Church
Alexandria, LA
October 16, 2010
Dr. Terry York

Lecture 2: Image and the Things That Are God's

Lecture 1

                                                Image and the Things That Are Caesar’s

It is humbling and somewhat frightening to stand here today. I begin by acknowledging that to have my name associated in any way with those of Doctors Frank Stagg and Malcolm Tolbert is an honor, indeed. Further, I want to thank Dr. Reid Doster and any who joined him in extending this invitation. I also express my appreciation to Pastor Chris Thacker and the Emmanuel Baptist Church for their generous hospitality. Others in this room are important to me on a personal level.

I was happy to be invited and happy to accept the gracious invitation. But, I must also say, that the theme around which we have gathered today seems heavy, for we focus on an issue that divides Christian worshipers. I’m not sure I’m up to the task. That’s not false humility. I’m not sure anyone is up to today’s task when every word in any forum is scrutinized to see which side you are on, the red side or the blue side.

You see before you a most unlikely candidate for the job at hand. The only credentials I offer you are these: on the patriotism side, I vote, I pay taxes, and I am a former Marine; on the worship side, I am a believer in and worshiper of the Triune God; and I spend some time thinking about our theme as I help train young seminarians.

       Actually, there are two other personal experiences that have informed what I will share with you today. The first is that of growing up in the home of a career Marine who was also a devoted Sunday-School teacher and Baptist deacon. Every Saturday night for eighteen years I watched as my father finished his week-long study of the Sunday School lesson and then shined his shoes.  You see his Marine Corps uniform was his “Sunday best.” He did not own a civilian suit, shirt, or tie. His being a Sunday-School teacher and a Marine were both full-time commitments and formative examples for me. Each Sunday morning, on his way to his assigned classroom, he would walk through the sanctuary to make sure that the American flag and the Christian flag were on the proper sides of the room, depending on whether they were on floor level or podium level. This was his routine in every church we were members of, no matter where the Marine Corps had stationed us.

The other experience was this: After high school, I joined the Marine Corps. I remember the day in boot camp when the punching bag of our bayonet practice grew arms and legs. In the glint of my bayonet I saw the reflection of both sides of an ancient coin.

I have been considering worship from one perspective or another for several decades now. My first official vantage point was as a church music student in college and seminary. The next was as a Minister of Music with worship planning and worship leading responsibilities, then as a denominational worker in the context of church music and worship, and now as a seminary professor who focuses on worship.
Throughout that span of time and involvement, there has been a constant drone of debate over worship.  Today we make the timely addition of patriotism to worship wars, worship as evangelism, worship styles, worship and culture, understanding worship, misunderstanding worship, hymns, praise choruses, modern worship songs, screens, teams, and bands. I have witnessed an array of ministry titles that has chased worship fads and trends. That list includes Song Leader, Minister of Music, Organist/Choir master, Associate Pastor (Music), Minister of Music and Worship, Worship Pastor, Worship Leader, Lead Worshiper, Worship Producer, Celebration Pastor and, my favorite, Minister of Magnification. You could add to both lists, I’m sure. Worship has been kicked around, jostled, and rolled over to the point that its rough edges have been smoothed down and rounded. Indeed, worship has become tame and toothless under our control.  

Well, let’s get to the good and timely work to which we’ve been called today.
I am going to read a list of ten characteristics. See if you can guess what the list is referring to:

  1. It is the source of our freedom
  2. It requires acts of devotion, sometimes even sacrifice to the point of martyrdom.
  3. It establishes our identity, both individually and corporately
  4. It presents to us heroes to emulate
  5. Some respond to it in full time vocation
  6. It can move us to tears
  7. It can inspire great courage
  8. It has engendered meaningful rituals and holidays
  9. It has a single identifying symbol that is both hated and respected around the world.
  10. It has a foundational, guiding document, although those who adhere to the document do not always agree on interpretations of it.

We’ll stop at ten, even though the list could grow longer. What has just been described?  For many in our country, the list could describe their country and their Christianity, their patriotism and their discipleship, their U.S. citizenship and their Kingdom of God citizenship.

Now add to the mix an unhealthy scoop of fear and then bring the mixture to the boiling point with ideological extremism. Who can be surprised at the confusion and frustration that surrounds our topic? To change metaphors, the issue of patriotism’s place in Christian worship is not a matter of a wolf pounding on the church door, demanding entrance. It is a matter of hearts pounding, deep inside the lambs in the pews.

Patriotism’s behavior on Sunday and Christianity’s behavior during the week have been in dynamic tension in our country since the ink was still wet on the Constitution. Secular and ecclesial politics have been strange bedfellows in our country since at least the emergence of the Moral Majority. Unlikely elements have compressed to the point that we give our time and energy to unfortunate divisions within our patriotism and within our Christianity rather than to the important divisions between our patriotism and our Christianity. What is the Christian to do when they discover that their patriotism is as deep in their soul and as keenly felt as is their love for and worship of God? Are they to become decidedly less patriotic?
They look to us, their ministers, for answers that make as much sense to them as do their mantras. You’ve heard the slogans and rationale. Some of it has just enough Bible in it to make it into Sunday School discussions, prayer meetings, and deacons’ meetings: “We would not be able to worship God without the freedoms our country affords,” “We are a blessed nation and we should be thankful for those blessings and our nation,” “God has made us a strong nation, and that strength brings with it certain obligations to the oppressed of the world.” These are not bad people and the mantras come to their aid when they feel the need to justify a loyalty to country that is more readily expressed than is their loyalty to God and kingdom citizenship. Prophetic and pastoral are two legitimate options.

Their bumpers are full of stickers, yet they know that the seemingly obvious argument is not won. They are right to look to their ministers and the Scripture for guidance.  Worship is where we explore the dynamic tension of our dual citizenship.  Yet our discussions of worship grow tiresome and thin.
A new perspective is needed when vocabulary and talking points become jaded and politicized; a new vocabulary, perhaps to be borrowed from a different conversation…like singing a well worn hymn text to a new tune; same words but the new sound brings fresh insights.

We must be careful, however, lest such borrowing from one conversation for the sake of another in our study of the Bible takes us out of context. With that word of caution in mind, rather than borrowing from, I will attempt to connect to another conversation, another perspective and vocabulary. We search for a freshness that might come to our stale parroting of worship positions, arguments, agendas, and prejudices.

The “other conversation” I was drawn to as I thought about today’s theme is the scene in the synoptic gospels where some Pharisees try to trap Jesus concerning the paying of taxes. I know, taxes and worship are differing investments, but I find in Jesus’ answer concerning taxes, a vantage point that might be transferable and helpful for thinking about worship. The ice is thin, but I see some footprints in front of me. Besides, this is a CBF gathering, so I’m confident you will decide for yourself if there are gaps in my Bible study technique and discipline. If this were an African-American congregation before me, I could count on a solidly voiced “Help him Jesus,” if I should begin to stray.

When confronted by the Pharisees about paying taxes, Jesus asked to see a coin. I recognize the glint of light that reflects off of it. “Whose likeness is this on the coin; whose face is pictured, whose image?”  With the image as the deciding factor, Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (NRSV). “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (TNIV).

The old tax currency might just buy us a reliable and fresh perspective for our worship discussions: image. Jesus said that we should let image determine who the owner is. Is this legitimate and helpful in the context of worship? We shall see. I acknowledge that this may not be a new perspective at all for you, but it is for me. Image…when you see the icon, when you hear the words, when you hear the music, whose image emerges?  Whose image is intended to be brought to mind? If it’s Caesar’s take it and give it to him.

Oh, I understand that different people will react to the icons, words, and music in different ways. And the church, in our economic system must collect some of Caesar’s coins for the financing of many of our Christian ministries. I didn’t say this was going to be easy. If I have a quarter in my pocket and Washington wants it back in taxes I’ll give it back. But, the things that are God’s are not negotiable.

Go with me to some other places in scripture where image is important. Genesis 1:26-27 for example: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (NRSV) The coin bore Caesar’s image, but the one who held the coin was made in the image of God. Give to Caesar, give to God. Here is an ordering of the world. Here is an ordering of the created universe. Here is a hint that whatever of Caesar’s that might make it legitimately into Christian worship must bow, like everything else, before God. The image of Caesar is either stopped at the door of the sanctuary or must bow in some show of submission on its way in.  

A question comes to mind here. Does an American flag ever fly in submission? If you see an American flag flying upside down, it is an indication of distress, not of submission. If you see an American flag at half-staff, it is the sign of mourning, not submission. Flags do not fly in submission. Flags are not displayed in submission; they are hauled down and removed in submission. If Caesar’s flag is flown or displayed, no matter where, it is not because Caesar is surrendering power or influence.

Back to the idea of image…in Exodus 20: 4-5a, these words from the one true God: “‘You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.’” (TNIV) Again, image is a focal point. Worship is where we declare most openly, most clearly, and if need be, most defiantly who or what is our god. And we are to have no opposing or diverting, or competing gods…none.

Here is where I take off on what is, I’m sure, after a while, annoying to my students. Here is where I begin my “worship and___” mantra. We are to have no other gods, and I would suggest to you that anything that is allowed to share time and or position with the one true God in an hour dedicated to worship of the one true God becomes an idol. This morning we are going to worship God and_____; you fill in the blank with anything that gets equal billing, equal focus, and you have crafted an idol. There is nothing that qualifies to sit on the throne next to God; nothing in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below, nothing that we can craft, nothing that we can produce, nothing that we can enhance or increase by placing it there; there is to be no image in completion with our jealous God.
God provides the only acceptable image in the context of worship. God has provided an image for image-hungry, worship oriented people. Indeed, it is God’s image that names and defines our worship. We read about it in Colossians 1: 15-28. Listen for echoes of Exodus:
He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. NIV

Patriotism, bow down before the maker of the focus of your devotion. Patriotism (and any other “ism”), be careful where you sit when you’re in the sanctuary, when you’re in the throne room. Be careful about standing where when the only one we are to bow down to is present. Images of God’s power, mercy, righteousness, and justice, combined with images of a nation’s power and mercy, righteousness, and justice crafts an image of another god, a two-headed god.

To test the power of the two-headed god image, simply remove the American Flag from the sanctuary (and the Christian Flag while you’re at it) and listen to the arguments and the tone of voice raised in protest. Removing the cross would not engender louder protest.  By here’s something we should never forget: God loves those who protest the removal of the flag and God loves those who feel somewhat superior for having made the move. I can almost hear God say to us… “Hey, they’re your sheep too. Help them. Guide them in their processing of deep love and devotion.”
Patriotism in worship heightens the possibility, perhaps likelihood, of incipient idolatry. But, we are admonished to worship in spirit and in truth, and the truth is that our spirits are stirred by patriotism. And the truth is that when we have loved ones in war zones and our nation is celebrating special national holidays, we cannot ignore the patriotism that wells us inside of us, and worship may be the most emotional hour of our lives, even if we fancy ourselves intellectuals.

What shall be the place of this truth in our worship? Shall such emotions be relegated to confession of near idolatry, with no other place in the hour’s proceedings? One of the by-products of Christian worship is the sorting out of our dual citizenship. Our in-the-world, but-not-of -it understanding is realigned in proper Christian worship.  I can think of no better place to iron out the give unto Caesar/give unto God wrinkles than in the house of worship dedicated to the one true God. Let us confess the struggle and process the deep truth of our patriotic emotions, especially when they rival our commitment to God. Honesty may well demand that the debate be enacted there.

I know of a church that has, and has had each Sunday since the invasion of Iraq, an item called the “military prayer” in their worship order. I know these people, their current pastor, and their former pastor…all good people. Two of them are my parents; one of them is my sister.  I have been in attendance several times. That particular prayer has been for the safety of our troops each time I have heard it. It is an honest expression of something that is deep in their hearts, especially when one of their own is among the troops. Patriotism and worship both rise from the depths. It is too easy for us to say, “Don’t they know that the protection of our troops might well involve the demise of the enemy troops, a group we are also to pray for?”

I would ask (if I were a member there) what steps are being taken to turn the military prayer into a prayer for peace. The nation to which we pledge allegiance has sent troops into battle to win the peace. The God whom we worship is called by many names, one of them is Prince of Peace, and in that person our God died for the enemy. I think that church who so faithfully bows their heads for their military prayer is fully capable of changing that time to a prayer for peace. In time I believe they will make the change.

Why do I think that? It’s because I know the work and influence of their former and present pastor, and timing is everything. Further, I saw a very interesting thing take place. Consciously or not, it took place. It is relevant to our consideration of patriotism in worship, of Caesar knowing his place, of good people of dual citizenship trying to work things out.

The church recently built a new building. In the old building the American and Christian flags were prominent and permanent fixtures. I respectfully asked one day, what would happen if those flags were removed. The answer was swift and sure. There would be a major conflict in the church.
When the new building was being built, it was decided that a few select stained glass windows from the old building would be placed in the new building. Which windows and the placement of those windows was a matter of some lengthy discussions over the course of many committee meetings. I was not privy to those meetings. I do know that cost was considered along with the reasons for moving any of the windows. Discussion progressed to deciding which windows would make the trip and, finally, where would they be placed in the new building.

Three windows were selected. One a cross in the center of a rose window was transferred and placed above the baptistery. Next, two other windows were selected. These would have a purpose other than being portals for natural light. They were placed inside the sanctuary, near the back, unseen when you enter, but tastefully displayed and carefully positioned with back-lighting as you exit the sanctuary. On the left as you leave is the window that includes images of an American Flag, and crossed Civil War cannons with a cavalry sword arched over them, all of apparent civil war vintage. The third and final window of identical size and lighting is placed opposite the war window. Its image, of equal quality, is a dove with an olive branch in its mouth. Oh, and by the way, there are no flags in the new sanctuary. Patriotism is finding its place in the Christian worship that takes place there. No flags when you enter, one stained glass battle flag in dynamic tension with a dove of peace as you walk out into a world that is awash in the dynamic tensions between war and peace, patriotism and discipleship.

Oh,  I’ve seen red, white, and blue flower arrangements on the Lord’s Supper table there when I’ve visited in July, but, thanks be to God, our God is patient, loving, and in full understanding of what it means to be human.  In a little church in a little town in Missouri, Caesar’s image is being made to bow in an environment of worship in spirit and truth.

The American Flag belongs to our Caesar. What else in Christian Worship might be seen to bear Caesar’s image? And what of it might be transformed into appropriate presence?
What if the 4th of July Sunday was given to prayers that our nation might humble itself and pray?
What if 9-11 Sunday was given to prayers for our enemies?
What if Memorial Day became the protestant All Saints day?

After all, transformation of secular, even pagan, festivals is not unknown in the worship of Yahweh. The Church created the Church calendar. Can some patriotic days be redeemed? Give Caesar his 4th of July, but give God a people who humble themselves and pray. Let us help those struggling with their dual citizenship. Give Caesar his fire-crackers. Give God prayer that ignites a turning. Give Caesar his 9-11 commemoration. Give God prayer for our enemies. Give Caesar his memorial day. Give God thanks for the saints who’ve gone before us.

In the end, Caesar can contribute very little, if anything to Christian worship. The hour and event called Christian worship can contribute a great deal to patriotism in terms of emotion and energy.  Patriotism turns our hearts toward the preservation of our nation. I have proven my commitment to that cause. But, worship turns our hearts toward the advancement of an entirely “other” kingdom that is at work in our midst even now.

Go; give Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But come, follow me, and worship no other gods.” In worship marked by unceasing praise and devotion, in worship private and in communal, in worship that and once sets our hearts at ease and puts us at great risk, in that kind of worship give God the things that are Gods. To think that we might call upon patriotism to revive worship is misguided, indeed.          
Patriotism is about standing at attention for the flag and for heroes and for the national anthem. Christian worship, on the other hand, is about bowing down; bowing down to the one true God.

Lecture 2: Image and the Things That Are God's