“Our citizenship is in heaven” - February 24, 2013 by Robin Wardlaw
Lent 2, Year C
Readings: (Genesis 15:1–12, 17–18); Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17—4:1; Luke 13:31–35
Time was, a person could just hop in the car in this country and go over the border to shop, say, or visit. “Where were you born?, Where are you headed?”, and that was about it. Now borders are like our arteries and our waists–they are “thickening,” to use the current term: getting harder to get through, more intimidating. The American government is pulling up the drawbridge against several kinds of threat. The 1883 poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty ends, “"Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest‑tost to me,/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” A beautiful thought. But that was then.
Citizenship. If I come here from another land, I have to swear loyalty to the Queen and Canada in order to become a citizen. Makes sense. If I’m born here, no such ceremony. I can have my own thoughts about the place, my own loyalties. So far. Canada is doing a little border thickening of its own these days, getting tougher on newcomers.
Our scriptures today are about place, among other things–a promised land, citizenship in heaven, and a place provoking great ambivalence in Jesus, as Luke tells it. Some of us have come from other places, other countries and continents. We live here, but part of us still thinks about some earlier home, some other smells and sights and sounds. We know what it is to be a citizen with a foot in more than one home.
This is what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Philippians. Well, one of the things he is getting at. He spent time in Philippi, his first stop in what we call Europe, west of the Bosphorus. Like a loving aunt or uncle he writes to them with reflections, advice, warnings, news, greetings. But in Paul’s case, he’s also saying thank you. The congregation at Philippi that has been sending him money to help him continue his itinerant ministry, as if he were the young person. So it’s a two-way relationship.
“Don’t be like those other people. Be like me. They are giving their loyalty to things that are not helpful to them, not adequate: the belly, earthly things. We give our loyalty to, we are citizens of, heaven.” Can we still say that and keep any credibility? Citizens of heaven: pie in the sky types, unrealistic, other worldly. Or maybe not. Depends what we mean by heaven. Is it wrong to imagine a better place, a world of caring and sharing, peace and justice? We have had this seed planted in our hearts, and it’s a tough little thing. It just keeps growing, won’t die, even if we don’t tend it very well. Like those life commandments you got from your mother that you just can’t shake: “Eat everything on your plate. Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
That seed of an idea that provokes artists and prophets and poets. The world doesn’t have to be like this. Could be different. Young people don’t have to run around using guns to do their negotiating, their evening of scores. Men don’t have to be homeless, living and dying on the streets. Mothers shouldn’t need to come to a food bank just to get through the month, swallowing their pride to ask for help. It’s a stubborn seed. Been around for a long, long time. Looking for the right soil.
Our citizenship is in heaven. This is good. This means we are dual citizens. When the duchy of capitalism insists that we bow and scrape before Almighty Dollar, we can wave our other passport and say No, un-uh. When a leader tries to play the patriotism card, make us all weepy about our home on native land, recruit us into a campaign of fear–fear of foreigners, fear of activists, whatever–we can say, Nice try. Might work on some, but we belong to the land of love, where fear has no power.
Paul never gave up his citizenship in the empire, remember. He used it continually. “I have rights,” he would tell governors and jailers. “I am a Roman citizen, so I insist on being tried in a Roman court.” For Paul, a trial was a good thing. He could explain what drove him, his other citizenship in front of a bigger audience. He could confront the values on which the empire was built in the empire’s courts. He died in Rome waiting for such a trial, looking forward to it.
Our dual citizenship is not a get-of-jail-free card, not an escape from this world. Kind of the opposite, actually. Last week in the book study, we learned about a Huguenot congregation and their pastor, Protestants in France during the Second World War who took their citizenship in heaven pretty seriously. They started hiding Jews, in the town of Le Chambon‑sur‑Lignon in south‑central France. People started getting off the train in their town and asking for the pastor. André and Magda Trocmé took them in, then delivered them to the homes of parishioners. Fake identities were devised: a cousin, a niece. No one blabbed.
Documents discovered since the war reveal that the Germans at some point knew what was happening. But they let it go. Many people were saved from the camps, from a terrible fate. Rev. Trocmé was arrested eventually. Magda invited the police in to supper, and let someone know what was happening. By the time the police brought the pastor to be taken away, people were waiting, and pressed socks into his hands, chocolate, things that would be helpful in prison. So e knew he was loved, and these little acts of courage sent a message to the Gestapo, too. “We support this man. We don’t like your philosophy, your policies.”
At the study, we also talked about Jesus, his courage and his tenderness. Denouncing the fox, sheltering the oppressed like a mother hen. People identified plenty of foxes to denounce, all the sheltering happening, and still to do. What if Michaëlle Jean had not been allowed in to Canada, or Oscar Peterson’s only choice was to be a train porter like his dad? There are so many good gifts to nurture, in yourself, in your church, in your world. The mission we gladly accept is to be part of the emerging world of creativity, joy, abundance, respect and health. It’s Lent. We often delve into tougher topics in Lent, but it’s not a gloom fest. We always remember who is with us, and the words of the psalm: “I will offer in God’s tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.” (Ps. 27:6b)