Sunday, July 03, 2005

What Kingdom Do We Serve?

Last year, I was out of town for the Fourth of July weekend and attended a local church service in the San Diego area. It got underway with about 45 minutes of music about America, which rarely mentioned God except to say that He’d given us this country or this was His nation. We were instructed to stand and even lift our hands, but the objects of our worship, as evidenced by the red, white and blue on the choir members and the flags waving on the jumbo-trons, seemed to be our country, our liberty, and our right as Christians to worship freely. Throughout the show, the screens showed images of fireworks, little children waving flags, and the statue of liberty, but they also occasionally cut to footage of soldiers at war, particularly when the choir sang about honoring those who’ve lost their lives for our liberties. The music culminated with a rousing anthem and a giant American flag, as long as the large stage and as tall as the ceiling, rising majestically as a backdrop.

Then the pastor got up and proceeded to preach from the Declaration of Independence. I am pretty sure that was his chosen text for the sermon (the Bible was cited only when it could be used to prove the correctness of the conservative right or of nationalism). He launched into a fiery speech about our rights as Christians to proclaim the truth, and warned of the renegade judges who are trying to take that freedom away from churches. He selectively chose events in America’s history that made the church look good and the government bad, and even brought up women’s suffrage and the end of slavery as examples of the church properly leading a liberal charge. Yet I doubt that this man has any interest whatsoever in changing the current government’s administration, nor in leading the way for civil rights in new liberal causes. Before the service was over, he managed to plug his book. Finally he announced watermelon was available for all (which may have drawn the most enthusiastic response of the night). To me, it felt much more like a civic gathering than worship.

I am grateful for the country in which I live, and thankful that I have the freedom to worship and share my faith with others without fearing persecution. Yet I hope that I would live no differently in any other part of the world. While I appreciate my country, I don’t feel the need to say it’s the greatest one on earth, as the preacher emphasized to great applause. My loyalty is to God’s kingdom, not any one in this world. I read once that American and Chinese Christians have more in common than Christian and non-Christian Americans. Do we really live like that is the truth?

I wonder if this attitude starts with believing that we have heaven all wrapped up, we’re “on the list.” This ascribes us to the secular viewpoint that the “now” doesn’t really impact the “then”. We can celebrate our country’s achievements yet ignore its mistakes. We can support presidents who lie to us, because their names are recorded in the book of life. We can say that America is the greatest nation on earth without pondering where that leaves our loyalty to the Kingdom of God.

In fact, as Dallas Willard is fond of teaching, “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”. We’re already doing our Kingdom work. And in my humble opinion, working on the governments of the kingdom of the world is a waste of time. We should be doing work that furthers God’s Kingdom – and that means it’s done without regard for earthly borders, languages, or nations.

At home, I attend an orthodox Episcopal church. I didn’t need to look any farther than the Book of Common Prayer to learn what a different service my faith community experienced on the Fourth of July. The lectionary listed this Gospel reading:

Matthew 5:43-48
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

My church doesn’t have big screens, but if it did, I highly doubt that images of war or the statue of liberty could have been shown in response to that passage.

When we choose to follow Christ, we choose a life of slavery. Liberty and freedom are irrelevant. The idea of our “rights” should be a foreign concept. Our lives are not our own. We only cling to Jesus and do our best to live like he did.

I hope that Christians will think carefully about the potential impact of our country's great power and wealth – not just for America's benefit, but the world's. Are we more concerned with protecting our institutions and way of life than saving lives in other countries? Have we grown so nationalistic that we prefer to vote on ethnocentric ideologies while millions face poverty, terror, disease, and death?

The billions spent on war could perhaps be better used elsewhere. A nation known for feeding the world’s hungry would probably not need to worry about terrorist attacks on its own soil.

Good work on this problem has begun, as yesterday's "Live 8" concerts showed. Take action - check out the One campaign, or True Majority, or the Christian Alliance for Progress. Let's do something now that will have eternal impact - and will help someone other than ourselves.

Sounds like a good Independence Day resolution.


St. Casserole said...

Thank you! Thank you!Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for making my Fourth a little brighter...and now I'm off to an international gathering for a relaxing bit of ironic celebration...

Paul Wilczynski said...

You said "When we choose to follow Christ, we choose a life of slavery. Liberty and freedom are irrelevant. The idea of our “rights” should be a foreign concept. Our lives are not our own. We only cling to Jesus and do our best to live like he did."

I have to tell you how much I appreciate that paragraph because, with absolutely no snarkyness intended, it describes precisely why I left Catholicism and Christianity.

And a few decades later, joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

I do enjoy your blog.

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