St. John's Episcopal Church, Kingston, NY
Brother James Michael Dowd, OHC
RCL Lent 2 C - Sunday 28 February 2010
Our three readings today offer a Lenten lesson of citizenship that is both timeless and rather timely. It is a lesson for every age, including, perhaps especially so, for our age. Essentially, these readings ask us questions, fundamental questions, about our priorities, and about where, and with whom, we make our stand. And in some ways, I think that this is what the journey of Lent is all about.
The first reading, from the Book of Genesis, is the story of God's granting of the land between the Nile and Euphrates Rivers, to Abraham and his descendants. This is what the people who were to be called Hebrews would eventually call their home, their country, the land of their citizenship.
It would take many centuries before the Hebrew people would eventually settle in the Promised Land, and still more for Jerusalem to be built, but the Hebrews became God's Chosen People and were given a home, a country, that they could call their own forever. But this was a Covenant relationship – not a free gift. The Hebrew people had to remain faithful to God by worshiping God alone, by keeping the Commandments, by acting justly, loving and living mercifully, turning swords into plowshares, and walking humbly with their God.
But the Hebrews were like every other people in that they sinned. Sometimes grievously. And so, mindful of that Covenant relationship, God sent prophet after prophet to teach, guide, correct, and call for the repentance of the people. But the people would have none of it. In fact, so often, they would turn on the prophets and kill them right in Jerusalem. And so, finally, God sent his Son, and by the time we get to Jesus, he is saying in an all too real foreshadowing “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (1)
And why did these prophets get murdered by their own people? I think it was because being asked to rend your hearts – to rip them open to God - allowing God to do the transformational work of conversion is just about the most difficult thing a person can do. To be told that your sacrifice of a few animals just doesn't cut it, as it were, makes people increasingly uncomfortable. It is easier to find ways to silence those who are shouting from the rooftops God's message of worshiping God alone, loving your enemies, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick and tending to the poor.
The attitude of many seems to have been that the giving of that homeland so long ago, was a free gift to be used however the people chose to use it. It would seem that the people thought that worshiping God alone, obeying the Commandments, acting justly, loving and living mercifully, turning those swords into plowshares, and walking humbly with God, was a choice, not an expectation. The people and the leaders of Israel convinced themselves that they had to act for the “good of the nation” by defending it, working to appease those who were seemingly more powerful than they, and not disrupting the economy. This was more easily accomplished by killing the prophets – and Jesus – than by heeding their words. After all, they had “real world” things to do and so would continue to mechanically observe the rituals, while not dedicating their lives to loving with genuine faith.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Where have we heard this in another context? Well, there are many right here in our own country that believe we Americans are the second Chosen People. From the time of the first settlers, the Pilgrims and those at Jamestown, many have promulgated the idea that, despite the fact that there were already other people here, the land that would become the United States was given by God to English speaking Christians and that it was destined to be, as Ronald Reagan would call it “the last best hope of man on earth.” (2)
We are, they contend a Christian nation and the nation that has been chosen by God to lead the rest of the world to freedom. We must therefore, the argument goes, maintain a strong military, solid borders, and a vibrant economy, at all costs in order to maintain our status as the New Chosen.
Now don't get me wrong, I love our land. We have been gifted with a land that has incredible natural resources and a political system that allows me to stand here and preach in this way without being arrested. Those are great things. My argument is that if we truly believe that we have been blessed by God with these things, we must put the things of God first. To do that, we must remember, as we heard in St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians, that “our citizenship is in heaven.” (3)
It is in this new country that we hold our eternal citizenship, and in which, we are “expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (4). This is a country in which the people are those who strive to act as Christ did and as St. Paul imitated: erasing the false boundaries of borders, tribes, ethnic groups, racial barriers, religious backgrounds. It is a country in which the people see the “other” be they strangers, foreigners, non-English speakers, as nothing less than their sisters and brothers. It is a country in which the people follow Christ by offering to lay down their lives for their friends. This is a non-violent country, and country in which the other cheek is offered and forgiveness abounds. A country where peace, justice, and mercy are not just nice sounding platitudes, but are actually lived.
That , my friends, is the idyllic sounding stuff. Hard to believe. Right? I'll bet some of you are saying to yourselves, what world is he living in because I've never seen such a place?
And that is true. But here's the tough news regarding the Good News. The citizenship in heaven that St. Paul talks about requires a passport. Without it, entry seems impossible. That passport is the Cross of Christ. A Cross that each of us are called to share the weight of, as we seek to carry it on our journeys to that New Land. When we each take up our cross, bear one another's burdens, and surrender to the will of God, we are in fact building up that eternal country which does have a name: it is called the Kingdom of God.
So, when we act as citizens of our temporary homeland, in our case, the United States, we must remember that it is the eternal homeland, the Kingdom of God, that we are striving for – both in this life and in the next. And if we are honest with ourselves, I think it becomes clear that as a society, as a political entity, and as an economic and military power, the goals and actions of our temporary homeland is not always in sync with the goals and actions of our eternal homeland.
And I think that this is what Lent is about. At least in part. So often there is such a strong emphasis on the personal aspect of sin and redemption during this time of year – and it's not that that sort of introspection is not important. But we forget that we are a community – the entire Church is the Body of Christ. And that Body is a compilation of all of God's people. And so, it is important to evaluate what as a community we are doing to help build up the Kingdom of God.
In the local community, here at St. John's, you serve those living with HIV/AIDS with Angel Food East. You minister to those in prison. You serve the poor in many different ways. This is exactly what the people of the new country, God's Kingdom do. But it is also important to pray as individuals and as community about where we have gone wrong, in what ways have we diverged from walking the path of God, which is also known as the Way of the Cross.
Do the needs of the poor, the widow, the orphan, come first? Do our actions, our spending patterns, our prayer life serve peaceful and hopeful goals? Are our eyes set – both as individuals and as a community – on the eternal homeland, or are we just thinking about the here, the now, the immediate?
When Jesus was approaching Jerusalem for the final time, he lamented, as we heard today, of “how often he wanted to gather the children of Jerusalem like a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” (5) But, alas, like so many times before, the people of Jerusalem were unwilling to hear God's message and respond to God's love. But with a determination for the ages, Jesus would spread those wings one last time as he opened his arms wide on the cross in order to gather each of us under it. That Cross, that passport, is how we enter into the Land of the Resurrection.
But once gathered under that Cross, there is no turning back. The Cross of Christ is the New Covenant. We now have something much greater than a plot of land. Now, we are inheritors of all God's Kingdom. This is God's Covenant with us. But along with our inheritance comes responsibility, to one another, and especially to the most vulnerable – the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the mourning, perceived enemies, and those who are weaker whether they live down the street or around the world. A responsibility to care for them, to live in peace with them, to carry their crosses when the load seems to heavy for them.
Lent is a time to be truly honest with ourselves and with God. I believe that if we were to do that as a nation, we would have to admit that we have fallen short on our end of the Covenant of Christ's Cross. I no longer want to fight people on whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian Nation. I want to say to all my American brothers and sisters, and I say to you this morning: If we are going to claim to be a Christian Nation, then we have to live up to the New Covenant.
First, we must understand that no nation can be the last, best hope of man. Only God is the best hope of humanity. Worship God alone. And next, let us learn to act justly by helping to carry the cross of the weakest and most vulnerable among us in providing food, shelter, a fair wage and adequate health care for the poor. Let us choose to turn our swords into plowshares as we repent and find a way to end an unjust war in Iraq. Let us love and live mercifully as we abolish the death penalty, and care for those in prison. Let us walk humbly with God in finding alternatives to abortion, because we can admit that life is God's gift to give and take. Let us be good stewards of the temporary home God has given us, by working to end global warming. Let us claim our citizenship in Heaven by loving those who are marginalized, forgotten, and despised.
This Lent, allow Jesus to gather you into his Cross. When you are standing there, under God's wings, forget the rituals and open wide your hearts to God alone. Allow him to show you the way to the New Land. Offer him your whole being and enter into the New Covenant. All you need is your passport, which Christ provided on the Cross. AMEN.
1 Luke 13:34 NRSV.
2 Reagan, Ronald. “The Shining City Upon the Hill.” Speech delivered on January 25, 1974.
3 Philippians 3:20. NRSV.
4 Philippians 3:20. NRSV.
5 Luke 13:34. NRSV