Friday, September 29, 2017

October 1, Proper 21, Space, Practice, Vision #5: God "In Service"

 Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

This is the fifth sermon in my series called Space, Practice, Vision. I am testing the terms of our draft new mission statement against the scripture lessons every week. This is the statement: Old First Reformed Church is a community of Jesus Christ in Brooklyn, offering a space of unconditional welcome, a practice of worship and service, and a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The last phrase is my favorite, “a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.” But some of you have told me that you’d rather that phrase be something else. I mentioned this to my wife Melody last week, and she said, “Me too.” What! She offered some different language which she thinks says it better. And maybe so! You’ll have to ask her yourself.

I like the phrase because it’s both Biblical and evocative. I hear the “kingdom of heaven” as expansive, inclusive, embracing, and uplifting. But what if others hear it as the opposite, as judgmental and restricting and confining? Especially with the rise of the Christian Right?

That’s a real consideration, and it’s up to the consistory eventually to decide. Please understand that this sermon is not meant to make a case for whatever final version of the new mission statement, only that the image of the kingdom of heaven is so much in the Bible that we need to know what it means.

Let me take a step back. Last Sunday the Germans had their election and one of the right-wing politicians from the AfD made this statement: “In Germany, Muslims are allowed, but not Islam.” Why? Because Islam does not distinguish the sacred from the secular, and at its root it is a political religion, and look, in Saudi Arabia Christians are allowed but not Christianity. Many Germans want their nation to be Christian by law. And you know of Americans who want the same. This is not just fundamentalism. To dismiss this merely as fundamentalism is to misunderstand religion.

The American strategy of pluralism has been to make religion a private matter, which liberals take for granted. Your religion is for your soul and your personal behavior, but not for public policy. We erect a wall of separation between the church and state, and it’s the state that gets to decide where the wall is. We’ve squeezed our religions into boxes to keep them safe, but also to keep us safe from our religions.

Because religions actually do make claims on public policies, religions have theocratic claims, public claims, political claims. Islam, for example, was never meant to be just a private religion for Muslims, but a vision for the whole of society, including the government.

And now in America the Christian Right is rejecting our strategy for pluralism. If Jesus is King of Kings, and since the word “king” is obviously political, then America must be a Christian nation again. (And also capitalist and nationalist, just not Christian socialist!) So if that’s what people hear in the phrase, “a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven,” then I can understand the hesitation.

No matter what we say in our mission statement, it is for this congregation to testify to a whole different vision of the kingdom of heaven, and in our spaces and our practices for us to model it. The culture of this kingdom is determined by the character of the king from whom it extends. So the vision begins is focused on Jesus, and where he takes his throne. 

His only throne on earth is a cross. While in heaven he is seated on the right hand of his Father, on earth he is enthroned upon a cross. Crux probat omnia, the cross (judges) changes everything, or at least it should.

Crucifixion was not a Jewish thing. The Jews did not crucify people. The chief priests were not allowed to crucify Jesus, they had to ask Pontius Pilate to do it. Crucifixion was a Roman thing. It was how they punished their slaves. When the Romans crucified Jesus, and posted above his head that he was the king of the Jews, they were showing that a Jewish king was no more than a slave to them: “This cross is the kind of throne we Romans give to Jewish kings.”

So when St. Paul says in his famous passage in Philippians 2 that Jesus “emptied himself and took the form of a slave,” his reference is precisely to the slave on the cross: Jesus, displayed to the Roman world as the king who is a slave, and St. Paul daringly says that Jesus freely took it on as his self-expression.

 We don’t know how St. Paul died, there is no record. But he would not have been crucified, because he was born a Roman citizen. He had privilege. Jesus did not. In American terms, Paul was white and Jesus was black. At least slavery among the Romans was not defined by the racism that we built America upon. And there were Roman slaves of high-status owners who were given lots of power and discretion. A Roman slave could do many things an American slave could not do.

But it was still slavery, because the point of slavery is not what you cannot do but what you may not do. No matter how much power you have, you may not use your power in your own interest, but in the interest of your owner. Freedom means the freedom to pursue your own interests. But slaves must sacrifice their own interests, even their children, to the interests of their owners. And just so St. Paul writes that you are empowered to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Why? Because the king of this kingdom is enthroned on earth as a slave upon a Roman cross.

St. Paul writes, “have this same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped at, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” I’m sorry this translation is inaccurate. The word “though” is not in the Greek; it’s more correctly, “who being in the form of God.” In other words it’s just like God to act this way. Maybe not like Jupiter or Zeus, but just like the God of the Exodus who took the form of a servant for his people.

Do you see it? The people were thirsty and there was no water and they complained. Moses was offended, but God was not. God said to Moses, Take your staff, the one with which you struck the Nile, and strike the rock where I will be standing before you.” Why didn’t God just send a powerful bolt of lightning down to break the rock open? Why did God stand there at the rock like Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey, as Lady Mary cuts her meat, as Moses breaks the rock. Like Daisy the kitchen maid, God put Godself “in service;” there in the desert God put God’s own servanthood on display.

So the slavery of Jesus is the extreme expression of the service of the God of Israel. That mind that was in Christ Jesus is the mind of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The culture of the kingdom of Jesus on earth is the culture of the kingdom of heaven. A sovereignty of service. A dominion of surrender to the interests of others. And in America today it is so important that this vision of the kingdom of heaven, this truer vision, is the vision that our congregation witnesses to by our space of unconditional welcome and that we model by our practices of worship and service.

According to St. Paul, our concern is not a Christian America, but to be Christians in America. If he says that we should in humility regard others as better than ourselves, then shouldn’t we regard non-Christians as better than ourselves? Should we not look to the interest of Muslims as the interest of the church? How can we say otherwise?

I’m not downplaying the Lordship of Christ. I’m not saying that all religions are finally the same. I’m not talking about what Jesus cannot do but what we may not do. I am not countering the vision of St. Paul that “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, the glory of God the Father.” I’m talking about how in the meantime the Lord Jesus expects us to bear witness to his Lordship.

I close with this. I was at a conference of ministers where one of my colleagues stated in good faith that the model of Christian discipleship is servanthood. Then one of our black pastors stood up and said, “We in the black church have had enough of that. You can say that for yourselves from your place of privilege. But please don’t come to a black church and tell us all to be servants.”

Got it! I get that servanthood is a metaphor, just as kingdom is a metaphor, and as a metaphor servanthood it is not always appropriate. We are called to freedom, not slavery, and God is able to take the form of servanthood because God is absolutely free. I would not force the metaphor of servanthood on a people whose salvation needs to be experienced as freedom and dignity.

The point of the metaphor is love, self-giving love. Your freedom is for your loving others in their own interests. The culture of the kingdom expresses the character of the king from whom it extends. And what pours out of him is the love of God. Have this same love in you that is in Christ.

Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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