February 28, 2010
SERMON OF February 28, 2010
M. Bruce McKay
Pilgrim-St. Luke’s United Church of Christ
“Mission: Possible – Claiming our Citizenship”
Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35
Crossing the border into Canada and getting back into the United States has gotten considerably more complicated in the years since Sept. 11, 2001.
You now need a passport or an enhanced driver’s license to make these border crossings in accordance with the law. An old fashioned driver’s license is no longer enough evidence of who you are to meet the legal requirements.
Despite these changes the first question that is always asked remains the same. It’s a one word question asked as if it were a statement – Citizenship.
Citizenship. The full sentence would be “What is your citizenship?”
Most, but not all of us here this morning would respond, “the United States.”
We then have to produce proof of our citizenship – in the form of a passport or an enhanced driver’s license.
To get either of these documents we need other documents proving who we are – documents like a birth certificate, a social security card, or a certificate of citizenship.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi he suggests that he would say something very different than any of us would say when we’re asked. ” What is your citizenship?”
“Our citizenship,” he tells the church in Philippi, “is in heaven.”
So the next time you’re crossing into Canada or returning to the United States and the official in the booth says, “citizenship,” try saying “heaven” – and see what happens.
If you are lucky and the official has a sense of humor, he or she might think you are funny.
If you are not so lucky, he or she will probably think you are nuts.
Either way, it will certainly add to the time it takes for you to cross the border.
And either way, you will be left needing to prove your citizenship. You will have to produce something that proves you are in fact a citizen of heaven.
So what would you produce? What could you produce as proof of your citizenship in heaven?
You could show the border official your baptismal certificate.
You could hand over your certificate of membership in the church.
You could invite him or her to church on Sunday – and then make sure you showed up yourself.
What evidence could you produce that affirmed your citizenship in heaven?
Citizenship is about where we live. It’s about where we make our home, where we come from and where we return to.
Our citizenship is also about more than geography. It’s about the loyalties, the values, and the allegiances that make us who we are.
If Paul was an Olympic athlete, he would have competed for Rome, for he was a Roman citizen. The same thing was true for the people to whom Paul was writing.
Philippi was a Roman colony in the region of Macedonia, which included much of modern day Greece, along with modern day Macedonia. It was a military stronghold, settled by Roman soldiers. Living in a Roman colony made Philippi’s citizens also citizens of Rome. Roman citizenship gave them special rights and required them to pledge their allegiance to Rome and to Caesar.
But Paul tells them that their most significant citizenship isn’t in the Roman Empire but in heaven.
Paul says that the citizenship that matters most to him involves loyalty to someone other than Caesar.
It involves loyalty to the values of a Kingdom that was and is and always will be very different from the Roman Empire or any other empire on earth.
Paul’s citizenship in heaven and that of the Philippians to whom he writes leads him to pledge his primary allegiance to something other than the flag of Rome.
“Our citizenship,” he says, “is in heaven.” He doesn’t say, “Our citizenship will be in heaven.” He says it is in heaven – now – in this life, as well as the life to come.
As Christians, our citizenship is in another realm, another place with another ruler – a ruler who’s different than rulers in Rome, or Washington D.C., or Ottawa.
This morning, rather than my standing in a pulpit, let’s pretend I’m standing in a booth at the border and you’re coming back across the Peace Bridge from Canada.
Let’s put ourselves into the situation I just described a moment ago.
You’ve driven all the way back across Canada from Vancouver where you’ve been enjoying the Olympic Games and celebrating the fact that the United States won more medals than any other nation.
You roll down your window and I ask you, “Where is your citizenship?”
You proudly proclaim, “the United States” and promptly provide your passport – or enhanced driver’s license – producing proof of your citizenship without having to be asked to produce it.
But I point out that across the Peace Bridge there isn’t a city called Buffalo, in a state called New York, in a nation called the United States.
I point out that across the Peace Bridge, there isn’t a place that’s almost heaven, called West Virginia that you reach by traveling country roads with John Denver.
I point out that across the Peace Bridge is a place called heaven and I want you to produce proof of your citizenship – not just then and there, but here and now.
You get the picture?
What will it be?
What will you produce?
What will you point to as proof of your citizenship in heaven?
Paul was a Roman citizen by virtue of his birth in Tarsus, another Roman colony. He was a citizen of heaven by virtue of his faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul was writing to the Philippian church from prison, probably prison in Rome. His citizenship in heaven had gotten him in trouble with the Empire in which he lived on earth. The Roman Empire demanded allegiance to Caesar and Paul’s allegiance to Christ put him in prison.
To be an American citizen and a Christian means to live and work here in Western New York while knowing that our most significant citizenship is somewhere else.
Although we may be loyal to our earthly government we know that our true home, our true allegiance, is elsewhere.
This dual citizenship makes all the difference in how we act and react in this land that is not really our land – but the land of the One who created it and created us – the One “in whom we all live and move and have our being.”(Acts 17:28)
As American Christians we can easily get to thinking that because we live in a democracy, because we are relatively free, and because we accept the illusion that this is a land of liberty and justice for all, we normally have no real problem with the government. We tend to think that our political, social, and economic order is our friend and that being a loyal American is essentially the same as being a faithful Christian.
That’s one reason why this question of proving our citizenship in heaven may seem hard to answer.
I can remember a conversation I had during college with one of my best friends from my hometown in Maine. We were talking about the war in Vietnam. He was supportive of the US presence there and I argued against the policy of our government. At one point in the conversation he said, “I don’t see how you can be so critical of our country’s efforts. Look at all the benefits we have as Americans. It seems to me that you are biting the hand that feeds you.”
What I realized years later was that I was in fact trying to be faithful to the hand that fed.
What proof of your citizenship in heaven would you offer?
In his letter to the church in Philippi Paul talks about the “enemies of the cross” as being those whose “god is the belly” - those whose god is physical food and material comfort – those whose god is found in the abundance of their possessions.
Proof of one’s citizenship in heaven is produced in the lives of those who are not enemies of the cross but those who follow the way of the cross – the way of suffering, self-giving love revealed in Jesus Christ – the one who “set his face” to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) even though he got word that Herod was trying to kill him.
We can’t point to our pursuit of the American dream as proof of our citizenship in heaven.
We can point to our pursuit of a different dream, however – a dream that reflects the conviction that every human being is created in the image of God – a dream rooted in the creative, compassionate, justice-seeking love of God for all people: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)
Proof of our citizenship in heaven is found in allowing the compassion of Christ to shape our lives, not just then and there, but here and now.
The word in Greek translated “citizenship” also means “commonwealth.” Those whose citizenship is in heaven value community more than consumption and recognize the importance of working for the common good, come what may.
In April 1963 a Christian minister wrote a letter from prison to a group of prominent white pastors in Alabama. The prisoner was Martin Luther King, Jr. He was serving a sentence for leading a civil rights demonstration in Birmingham and was addressing a group of white pastors who argued for patience and counseled against nonviolent civil disobedience.
In his letter King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Confronting any law that violates the higher law of God’s love for us and for all people, the law we follow by working to love one another as Jesus loves us, is one way of offering proof of our citizenship in heaven.
Voice-Buffalo has been actively organizing people of faith to oppose the elimination of child care subsidies for low income working women by our County Executive, because in doing so, women who’ve managed to go from being on welfare to entering the work force are being punished for doing so, as are the entrepreneurs who are caring for their children and will be put of out business by this action.
Even though our County Executive is legally entitled to do take this action, he’s doing so despite the fact that the Erie County Legislature has voted 15-0 asking him to extend the deadline to see if money can be found to solve the problem.
Proving our citizenship in heaven means pointing to those times and places in our lives and in our life together when we have shared in God’s mission by loving God and loving our neighbor as our self.
We can’t do this without also shaping our lives around the conviction that “justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public.” (Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You – The True Martin Luther King, Jr. p. 132)
W.H. Auden writes:
…All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the life of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police
We must love one another or die….(From September 1, 1939)
“We must love one another or die.”
And there are times when loving one another may mean risking physical death in being faithful to – in loving - the One who created us and called us as disciples of Jesus – the One whose love is stronger, even than death.
This is what Paul understood in writing from prison to the church in Philippi
This is what Jesus understood in continuing on his way to Jerusalem, knowing the intentions of Herod.
This is what we’re asked to understand as citizens of the United States, Canada or any other nation.
We can’t serve two masters.
The way to heaven in this life and in the life to come isn’t found by crossing the Peace Bridge from Fort Erie to Buffalo – although it may be.
For as Thomas Merton understood, “the gate to heaven is everywhere.”
And the way God opens the gate is by inviting us in our own lives and in our life together to follow the way of the cross – the way of suffering, self-giving, justice-seeking love revealed in the one on his way to Jerusalem.
Where is your citizenship?
May your life and mine answer that question convincingly!