sermon for 2nd Sunday in Lent
(Philippians3:17-4:1; Luke13:31-35; Genesis15:1-12,17-18)
For three of the required merit badges to become an Eagle Scout, I had to do tasks like learning about types of government and organizations like Unicef and Amnesty International, reading the Constitution and a newspaper, examining how security, climate, and economy affect current events, reading historic speeches and writing to elected officials, discussing the importance of taxes and volunteering for a charity, attending a school board meeting or court session and multicultural events celebrating various heritages. These were aspects, then, of Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation, and Citizenship in the World.
That’s a good list, and we might go far to continue engaging such practices. However, besides community, nation, and world, today we have an additional “citizenship” in front of us: the reading from Philippians declared that we share Citizenship in Heaven. It’s a great phrase that Paul uses, and beneficial for us to spend some time examining and pondering what it means and—in the words of the Scout merit badges—“what it takes, the rights, duties, and obligations of a responsible and active good citizen.”
Perhaps one of the first important things to note is that your citizenship in heaven is not about location exclusively. Just as you simultaneously serve as a citizen of the community, nation, and world, your citizenship in heaven is also an overlapping category. That’s worth saying to counter a belief that would claim faith is mainly about going someplace else. When that becomes the case, then how you live here doesn’t really matter, much less what happens to others. Why bother to care for the earth if you’re destined to fly away to heaven?
So if this being a citizen of heaven isn’t about ending up elsewhere, not just for after you die, but is about engaging life here and now, rather than location maybe we think about it in terms of loyalty or values or practice. Along those lines, we might well say that heavenly citizenship is exactly what leads our children to be guiding us with “change for change” and concern for water resources around here, and in Michigan, and internationally. They aren’t mutually exclusive.
That also highlights another factor. If heaven were mostly about where you went when you died, then that’s a fairly inactive enterprise. If it’s about later, for the time being, you can just passively wait for it to happen. Perhaps it’s possible to be uninvolved, a citizen without laboring at it; indeed from voter turnouts and factual awareness of issues and time spent working on our democracy, we know there is all too much apathy and lack of involvement for our more typical types of citizenship.
Yet this citizenship of heaven as Paul envisions it is entirely active and engaged. It’s not just for later but for now, and it makes a difference for your life. In fact, this is so dynamically involved that it’s got the “energy of dynamite.” That is the actual Greek phrase in our text; our words energy and dynamite come from these words that are more blandly translated in our version as “power that enables.” Sure, that’s already saying something pretty great, that Jesus is enabling your citizenship, that he activates your capabilities and triggers your powers. But it conveys the whole experience for us so much more dramatically with those explosive original words: Jesus is changing you to be an active heavenly citizen. To live into this role, he’s not just recommending concern or repeating obligations. No, he is filling you with the energy of dynamite. Wow!
You might wonder just how thunderously grand or motivationally invigorating this could be, though, if in our first reading Abraham was brought into his role of citizenship by sleeping through it. Well, we’ll explain some of that with the peculiarities and mysteries of faith, with the paradox of Jesus.
But it doesn’t need to be a category unto itself. If you consider yourself a citizen of Madison, you have to trust a sign that would tell you you’re crossing into Middleton. You’d trust flags hanging around to convey that you are in your nation of the United States. You may consider yourself an engaged citizen of this world though you haven’t tasted the water of Flint or traveled to villages receiving wells or maybe even know the source that delivers to your own tap.
So it was with Abraham. Even asleep he came into his role as a heavenly citizen because of trust. In language that resonates throughout scripture but nevertheless may sound antiquated in our ears, he reckoned it was right. There wasn’t proof. In fact, just the opposite: he was asking about an heir, about having a child. God promised that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars overhead and the sands of the beach. But no proof. Not even a downpayment or head start on that solution. Even if they’d had ultrasounds, Sarah wouldn’t’ve had anything to show. All they could do was trust, even in spite of the evidence. They reckoned it was right.
This is, perhaps, among the difficult things about this heavenly citizenship, that it is somehow not dependent on the statistical quantifications or factual evaluations to which we’re accustomed. It turns out—just the reverse—that this is more usually found under the sign of its opposite. We may glimpse some of that with Abraham, that his deliberation and acceptance came while he was unconscious and unaware, and that Sarah encountered this serious matter with a laugh which she came to embody and birth. We could see it in this declaration of a mighty and multitudinous nation which was for generations unpopulated, in slavery, and without a homeland.
Yet, as always, the center of this faithful understanding comes to us in Jesus. The energy of dynamite that is unleashing transformative change on our world is embodied in Jesus whose way of life is so much about dying. It’s even striking in the imagery he uses for us today, of fox and hen. A couple weeks ago a red fox had trotted through the parking lot here and I posted on Facebook, excited about it, thinking how it had habitat in our prairie. But Emily Wixson was quick to reply in concern for our chickens. We know in a fight who is going to win. Yet in contrast with typical images of control and power and what it takes to be in charge, Jesus picks the wrong part. He claims to be a chicken.
And he calls King Herod a fox. Now, the first impression would be that the fox is going to kill the chicken, that if there’s a competition between them, between this political ruler and Jesus, that Jesus is going to lose every time. And, indeed, we know that’s exactly what’s going to happen: Jesus is going to die at the hands of the authorities.
Yet there’s also maybe a hidden twist in Jesus calling Herod foxy, so to speak. In our Old Testament portrayals, foxes show up when places are deserted or abandoned. Their realm is amid desolation. So maybe when Herod thinks he’s so in charge, Jesus is playfully suggesting that this rule is not so grandiose or powerful as he may think, and that indeed the chicken’s time has come home to roost.
This is the question or the challenge for those of us who trust Jesus, who trust his vision for the world and trust our lives under his caring wings, those of us who seek to live faithfully as citizens of his heaven. The way of love that Jesus revealed and embodied does not seem to be the winning way. It sure seems that the violent and ruthless and powerful and deceptive are able to win control. Even if you are held under the protective wings of this chicken Jesus, that may seem of little value if foxes can show up and again rip you to shreds.
But Jesus’ words to the fox Herod are not to give into to those appearances, not so quickly to try to claim glory and triumph and victory. “On the third day,” Jesus says. That third day makes all the difference for this chicken way of love, this heavenly citizenship that is dedicated in giving itself for the life of this world. “On the third day,” Jesus says, “I finish my work.” As we say again today in words of the ancient creed, it is on that third day that he rose again. On that day, Easter. On that day, resurrection. On that day, death is invalidated—it has lost its strength. The energy of dynamite is no longer with the foxes with the fiercest gnashing teeth. The energy of dynamite, the fullness of God’s investment and power is in our abilities to love, to gather under warm wings and to cradling bosoms and to nurturing hearts. It is not in taking life away but in giving life for each other.
Two last words from Philippians. One is “conformed.” On Transfiguration two weeks ago, we mentioned the Greek word “metamorphosis,” on taking on a different form. This word is “symmorph,” just like “conformed” meaning to take on the same form. This sort of conformity is good news as you are being transformed to be the same shape as Jesus. Look at his pierced hands as he gave up his life on a cross, but also those hands that bleed no more, where the injury cannot hurt, where death has no power because life reigns. As he gives you the energy of dynamite, it is so that your life may be given away for the sake of this world he so loves, and that his work may be finished, complete in you.
That is a word of hope. The other is a word of challenge for us in these days. Jesus laments over Jerusalem, over the capital city, the seats of power, the place of the foxes. He laments knowing it deals in death. And it is that place of foxes that he loves and wants to gather under his wing like the mother hen. In our own environment, the culture much too malicious in these days, it is vital to know that Paul’s word for citizenship is exactly what becomes our word “politics.” When politics is embodied only as a bad word, an ugly thing, you are called and invited to trust and live into the politics of heaven.