Here’s an apology in advance for all the “I” statements. Just trying to demonstrate that there is some breadth of experience and exposure to my commentary…
I was born in Missouri, was a toddler in Western Kansas and spent my adolescence and early adulthood in Nevada, attended college in Washington state, & 10 years later went to graduate school in New York state; I’ve lived with the poor in West Virginia and in Colorado, and I’ve lived near affluent suburbs of Rochester, NY, and Cleveland, OH. I’ve summered in Maine, spent lots of time visiting in California and New England and Texas. I’ve seen some of the best this country has to offer, and I’ve seen some of the worst conditions people are made to live in.
I’ve been privileged to watch whole communities pitch in to help someone who’s been burned out of their home; and I’ve seen elected ofﬁcials and corporate bureaucrats cut off assistance to the people who need it most.
There’s a lot to be proud of in this country. And the parts that shame us, hopefully, spawn our commitment to bring about the necessary changes.
I have lived in Denmark and Panama and I’ve visited a few other countries—mostly in Europe and Latin America. I’ve heard the United States criticized for what we’ve done and I’ve heard gratitude for what we-as a nation-have accomplished worldwide. Again, there’s a lot to be proud of, and hopefully, the parts that we’re ashamed of will spawn our commitment to bring about necessary changes.
There are places and geographical features that are idealized and ﬁlled with power and meaning and poetry, but there are also places wracked with injustice, selfishness, and death. The birthday of our country is looming before us and the ﬁreworks will bring celebration and nostalgia partly for what we were, or perhaps are, but even more for what we want to be as a country. I’m reminded of Bishop Frey’s statement about how he preaches: not so much from accomplishment, as from aspiration. The same holds true for our celebrations and parties and noise makings. All of this is part and parcel of what it means to be a citizen of the United States.
But notice I said “citizen of the United States” and not “an American,” or “a citizen of America.” No one can have citizenship in America, because there’s no such country. America is two continents; the northern one we share with Canada, Mexico, and several smaller countries. There’s no “American” ﬂag, but many nations have ﬂags; there’s no “American” anthem, but many national songs; and “America” has no border to keep people out or define who belongs; there’s no way to join, except by virtue of living on one of the two continents we call America. There’s no way to vote for any elected ofﬁcial to govern, since there’s no centralized government. America is a loose association of countries who’ve made attempts throughout history to try and work together…
There’s another place that has no borders, little governmental association, no ﬂag, no way to vote for its Governor, many anthems—but no one ofﬁcial song, and we can claim our citizenship there. It’s called the Kingdom of God. The most recognized symbol isn’t a ﬂag or a banner, it’s a Cross; and all who believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and who are baptized with water in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are citizens with God as Ruler, Governor, King. As the Bible puts it, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”
Yet, even allowing the misuse of the name “America,” I wonder how far we can take the analogy. How often do we have huge parades for the freedom that Christ fought for us? When was the last time ﬁreworks were shot off for our Sovereign? In this country, I’m in for hell if I suggest—even in jest—that we burn the ﬂag; and people are accused of being unpatriotic and disrespectful if they don’t join in the pledge of allegiance or stand for the national anthem. But if I abuse the Cross or refuse to participate in church; if I abuse God’s Name (e.g., “O my G_d”) or ignore the needs of the poor—even if I never come to Church, I may still name myself “Christian,” and no one disputes it. For some, citizenship in the Body of Christ is an optional idea—suitable opinions appropriate for some but easily dismissed by others, while citizenship in our nation must be sincere, and expressed with commitment.
The enemies of our country receive harsh treatment—until they’re beaten in war or converted to a more tolerable position—and then we treat them honorably. But the enemies of the Cross of Christ and those who attack the faithful citizens of the Kingdom of God are encouraged to continue their attack. In fact, when someone emotionally and passionately expresses their faith in God and their love of Jesus—Who is the only Savior and Redeemer of the world—they’re ridiculed and discounted. Let others speak just as emotionally and just as passionately about the U.S. ﬂag or our country and they’re praised and held up as honorable examples. As someone once said, “A fanatic is someone overly fascinated in something that I have no interest in or knowledge of.” Where does the church and our citizenship in the Kingdom of God ﬁt into our thinking?
I have nothing against the overzealous expressions of patriotism that proliferate at this time of year. But I call all of us to a question, a question of commitment: If in this life we are to be ultimately committed and faithful, to zealously defend and courageously proclaim our citizenship, will it be to the temporary splendor of the all-too-human institution which we call the United States? Or will it be our citizenship in the Kingdom of God—membership in the Body of Christ that we affirm, proclaim and feel strongly enough about that we are ready to die for?
Our patriotic emotions are ok and often well-deserved; but what would happen to the earth if we took our citizenship in the Kingdom of God as seriously, as intentionally, as stubbornly? What if we were as faithful to the Cross as to the U.S. ﬂag? What if we sought to defend and further the aims and goals of the Church of Jesus Christ as much as we do those of our country? Dare we even imagine the results of such a scenario? Perhaps that’s what Jesus is demanding of us as he concludes today’s gospel reading, “Once you’ve set your hand to the plow, if you turn back—you’re not fit for the Kingdom of God.”