A sermon by the Rev. Linda Harrison
Lent 2; March 17, 2019
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
Once upon a time, probably in seminary, I had a conversation with another classmate about allegiance and belonging. He insisted that since Paul wrote that our citizenship is in heaven, we have no real obligations here on earth … other than to convert people to Christianity – that is where our allegiance lies. He went even further to assert that his residence in Virginia was temporary, just someplace he stayed until he was called home – home to heaven. Ministry was about saving souls, winning citizens for the dominion of God. I countered with arguments using the biblical witness seen through the prophets and God’s care for creation and the example of Jesus and the disciples. Even an appeal to the Lord’s Prayer didn’t sway him. He was not convinced by, “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as in heaven”. Nope, he said, God had it all under control here and things were going to be what they were going to be. He didn’t have to worry about this place or this time. Yes, he’d speak up where he saw injustice, but as Christians that was not our primary calling. Our primary concern was the end times. Our calling was conversion, to bring people to Jesus.
We agreed to disagree. When we parted, he said he’d pray for my wayward views. I’m sure he meant heretical.
To this day, I maintain that heretical viewpoint. Everything in me, everything I have witnessed, everything I have studied tells me that God calls us to be in this world, to act in the world, to care for all the inhabitants and creatures of this world.
Paul’s choice of words does suggest that we belong to an alternate empire. The particular Greek word used for citizenship is a term that implies colonization. It’s a word used to describe groups of people who resettle an area and whose sole purpose is to colonize it. The term was applied to military veterans of the Roman Empire who were given property in conquered lands as payment and reward. Their purpose was to settle in the conquered lands in order to impose and enforce Roman customs, law, and rule, thus erasing the previous culture and making it a Roman civil entity. One of the many ways Rome maintained Pax Romana – or the Peace of Rome.
Paul does indeed write that our citizenship is in heaven. We are citizens of the dominion of God: beloved children of our Triune God and we belong to God in Christ. That means, as citizens of an alternate empire our allegiance – our faithfulness – is to that alternate empire and the God who reigns there. Our allegiance is to the One who creates us, sustains us, nurtures, and loves us. Since our faithfulness is to the One who calls us to love and care for this world, to show mercy and work for justice and righteousness, we indeed have an obligation to reflect that same love and mercy in the world. We are called, as the prophet Micah writes, to do justice and love kindness. How we behave in this world matters.
We are Christians first, above and beyond any other label we wish to apply to ourselves, before our gender identification, ethnic origin, denominational affiliation, or even nationality. We are citizens of the Dominion of God, belonging to God and beloved of God. And yet, we live out our lives here on this earth, and we must do as God has called us, which can lead to unpopular positions and uncomfortable moments.
Members of the Religious Society of Friends were persecuted in England – imprisoned, tortured, denied a livelihood – for refusing to pledge allegiance to the monarchy, because Quakers believe God created every person and therefore every person is of equal and sacred worth. To pledge allegiance to an entity other than God could also lead one to do things counter to the beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends, which is firmly grounded in peace, equality, and social justice. Although an unpopular stand, I am of the same mind as my Quaker grandparents. Today in the United States, Quakers do not recite the Pledge of Allegiance, nor will you find an American flag in a Friends school or meetinghouse. The beliefs of Friends are clear: nothing and no one – no institution, no government, no entity – is above God, who alone is deserving of our allegiance, and that allegiance requires a certain way of living out our lives here.
We are citizens of heaven, nevertheless we reside here on this earth, in this country. Using Paul’s terminology, that makes us colonizers for the Empire of God. As colonizers for the Roman Empire, Roman citizens were used to impose Roman authority. As Christian colonizers, we are called to live out the dominion of God – your will be done on earth as in heaven. In so doing, we bring the love, mercy, and justice of God to this place and this time. Unlike Roman citizens, ours is not a mandate to colonize through force or violence or intimidation. Our mandate comes directly from Jesus, the One who laid down his life for his friends: you are to love one another as I have loved you.
As we wait for the coming again of the One Who Was and Who Is and Who Is To Come, we work together as citizens of the dominion to bring about the reign of God here and now.
Blessed be God forever.