- The Rev. Frank St. Amour, III
Sermon - 2 Lent
In the Name...
Just as the graveside service ended, there was a tremendous burst of thunder and rain began to fall. One mourner turned to another and said, "Well, I guess she's up there."
We, Americans, are a restless lot. We come, we go. A job transfer can uproot lifelong residents. Grown children move away and older parents often follow. The concept of the "hometown" is something of which we can easily lose sight. When I served churches in TX and FL, it never ceased to amaze me how few native Texans or Floridians were in the congregations. Everybody seemed to be “from” some other state.
But, in most societies for most of history, life is, and has always been, far different. Home is where you are born, and home is where you die. The span between is often spent in familiar settings, raising a family, plying a trade, and working the fields. The land itself is home, and it does not change all that much from one generation to the next.
That’s why, in the ancient world, the gift of land from a king was really the gift of home, of identity and belonging. It was certainly so for the ancient Israelites. “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans,” God tells Abram in our first reading today, “to give you this land to possess.” And, because of this gift, Abram and his descendants find their place in the world. Jesus treads this same land, centuries later - but, with a difference. “Home” for Jesus is a loose and elusive term. You and I, for example, know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but, in his lifetime, he was known as Jesus of Nazareth – a city at the opposite end of the country. And, as we heard today, he always seems to be on the move, never staying in one place for very long.
In a sense, this is an indication of the difference between the Old and New Covenant. In the Old, Abram marks the covenant by a sacrifice of animals and this gives him real estate. But, the sacrifice that marks the new covenant is the Lord’s own death, and the land promised does not consist of acres, but, the very kingdom of Heaven. Lent is our annual reminder of this reality, of the covenant that was sealed at the Cross and of the “land” that has been given to us. Indeed, as Paul tells us in his Letter to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in Heaven” and you note that Paul does not say that we are going to be citizens of Heaven at some distant time in the future. It’s not something that happens after we die. He says we are citizens of Heaven here and now as we live and breathe, and, that may be hard to imagine. How can I be living here and, at the same time, be a citizen of someplace I've never ever been?
The city of Philippi, to which Paul wrote, was what was called a Roman "colonia." That is, it was a brand new city built for the purpose of housing retired Roman soldiers and their families. These model cities were planted all over the Empire and were meant to be showpieces of Roman culture stocked with all the mod cons, aqueducts, theatres, paved streets, etc. They were to represent a way of life superior to that of the cultures in which they were placed and, by exercising civilizing influence, they were to transform the peoples around them and show them the benefits of being Roman citizens.
For, to be a Roman citizen was the ancient world's greatest privilege. Citizens enjoyed rights denied to others. They were exempt from local taxes. They could appeal from a local judge to the Emperor. They could not be sold into slavery for debt. In a sense, Philippi was a spiritual extension of Rome, even if most of the Roman citizens who lived in it had never been to Rome.
Of course, that was the theory. In practice, things were different. Many of the Roman colonies failed to be the shining examples they were meant to be and, far from transforming the locals, became transformed by the surrounding cultures and that is both the image and the concern which Paul has in the forefront of his mind as he writes to the Christians in Philippi.
For, just as the Romans of Philippi were supposed to represent the greatest power on earth, so, too, Christians, wherever they live, are supposed to represent the greatest power in the universe and need to live accordingly, showing the world what being a Christian is all about.
Actually, it is amazing how the word "Christian" is used. Some years ago, a network news anchor was quoted expressing his hope that Israel and Egypt could settle their differences in “a Christian manner.” And, we hear so often of Christian values, and Christian morals and Christian lifestyle as if being a Christian is all about staying out of trouble and being kind to children and animals. And, certainly, there is something to be said for this. Being a Christian does carry with it some expectations of conduct, but, there is an enormous gulf between being a good person and being what Paul called today, a citizen of Heaven.
The Bible teaches of a universe divided. "There was war in Heaven", the Book of Revelation tells us, and as a result, Satan and his spiritual forces of evil, having failed to take over Heaven, turned their attention to the earth, the material world. Every human being, therefore, is born into this material world where life is, as Thomas Hobbes famously wrote, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." It’s a world where the laws of nature and death have the last word. A rather depressing state of affairs.
But, there is a way out. Through joining ourselves to Christ, we become super-naturally reborn into the spiritual world where physical death is not the end, but the gate to eternal life. That is how it is that you and I still live here in the material world and, yet, claim that we have passports already made out with an eternal citizenship clearly marked.
And, that gives us an entirely different outlook on life. To a person who is only a citizen of this world, there's very little to look forward to. But, as citizens of Heaven, we can transform the poverty and nastiness of this world; the brutality and shortness of life; and replace it with the power of hope which comes from God.
In other words, we can reclaim this material world from Satan's grasp by reminding it, for example, of the difference between keeping your temper because losing it gets you into trouble and keeping your temper because, on the Cross, Jesus prayed for his executioners. Reminding it that immorality should be avoided not just because it's a bad thing, but because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Reminding it, that while we should help the poor, it’s not because that's a nice thing to do for strangers, but, rather, because the poor are our brothers and sisters with the same heavenly Father.
How different this is to mere morality. A person can be moral and not ever think of God. A Christian cannot think of anything but God.
We are the Lord’s own people - people of the New Covenant and citizens of Heaven. So, as St. Paul said, stand firm in the Lord. In Christ, wherever we live, we are at home.
In the Name…