Gospel: Luke 13:31-35
1st Reading: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
The Apostle Paul says this morning in his letter to the Philippians, "Our citizenship is in heaven." I remember as a little girl, learning what it meant to be an American Citizen—the privileges and responsibilities. I remember saying the Pledge of Allegiance each day in school, standing by my desk with my hand over my heart. I remember my parents telling me about the history of this country, how our family came here, and about the freedoms we enjoy. I remember going down to my elementary school with my mom after the last of the daycare children she watched during the day had been picked up and standing there in the voting booth with her as she cast her ballot behind that curtain. I remember feeling proud to stand for the National Anthem at sporting events, looking around at all the people's serious faces, the men taking off their caps out of respect, and feeling part of something big.
Going to Germany this summer brought up many questions for me of what citizenship means. I am an American citizen, but I was traveling to the place of my birth, the place where my family comes from, the place where my denomination started, and the place that defines my professional life in a big way. When I was growing up, I remember my dad saying that any of my siblings could become President of the United States, except me. I was born in Germany. Now we know from some of the Presidential candidates that might not be true, since my dad was in the military and I am an American Citizen born abroad. The point is, I always knew there was something different about me. We couldn't drive past the hospital where I was born, like we did Lebanon General Hospital where my siblings were all born. I felt disconnected from my beginnings. So it was a strange feeling going to Germany. When we arrived in Hanover, they of course could see by my passport that I was born in Germany. I was treated well there. The rental car company even gave us a fancy car upgrade to a Mercedes. Maybe it is because of my passport. Maybe it is because I spoke German with them, or tried very hard. Or maybe they had a car left over they were trying to get rid of. I wondered how I would feel about Germany. Would it feel familiar in any way? I only lived there a year and a half. But that is where I learned to walk, where I spoke my first words, the first trees and birds and houses and lights I ever saw were there, and first people I ever met were there, peeking into my baby carriage. Certainly Nick and I did feel at home in Hanover. Germany has a very similar climate to Oregon, with fields and forests and mountains. We're about on the same longitude. We loved much of what we saw in Hanover--the neighborhoods bunched together, the solar panels and wind turbines, the fields and forests, the cultural activities, the public transportation system, and food. We felt at home. Yet in Oberenzenn, the place where my parents and I lived when I was born, I felt anything but welcome and at home. I felt the same thing my parents felt, unwelcome, and that was probably due to the American Army base just outside of town. I walked into the same bakery, the same little store my mother had wheeled me into as a baby and I received the same unwelcome response she had 40 years before. On our last night in Germany, we ate and drank in Munich at Hofbrauhaus, a famous landmark there where both Hitler and JFK had separately visited, among many others. We sat with a German couple. The first thing they said to us was, "Germany isn't all bad," because their perception was that all Americans know about Germany is about the holocaust. Then the man went on to explain that he and his wife wanted to move to the United States. They were ready to give up Germany and move to Florida, if their names were chosen in a lottery. He was unhappy with some of the laws and tax system in Germany. This couple, too, were thinking of what citizenship means and where they might feel at home, where they might belong.
What does it mean to be a citizen of a place? What allegiance and thanks do we owe for all the benefits we receive? What is our responsibility to try to make it a better place by challenging it when it doesn't live up to its promise for us and for others around us?
Abram was a citizen of nowhere. He was rich, with flocks and possessions and slaves. But he had no home. He lived here and there. He had no place to belong. He would settle someplace for a while and then move on. His father brought him part way to the land of Canaan. Then God called him the rest of the way there, but there was a famine, so he ended up going to Egypt for a while. Finally, Abram and Sarai ended up coming back to Canaan. Then he went off to war for a while to retrieve his nephew Lot who had been captured. He returns again, and then God speaks to him and says all that we read this morning and more.
God reminds him that he does belong, that God is his shield and protected him during all these close calls and in battle. His citizenship is with God. That's his family. That's his nation. That's where he belongs. He's been told this several times over by now. But Abram's anxious. “As long as we're having this conversation, God, what about that promise you made to me that my offspring would number as the stars.” God reassures him that God will keep those promises. God is trying to teach Abram what it means to have citizenship in heaven, that God is trustworthy. They are building their relationship with one another.
Once God promises Abram again that his descendants will number as the stars, the reading tells us that Abram believed God and God reckoned it to him as righteousness. I don't know if it is a little tongue in cheek, to say that Abram believed. Abram had a hard time trusting. He was looking at the promises of God and he was looking at his current reality and he was seeing a disconnect. So he asked God again. He continues to act like he doesn't believe. He takes matters into his own hands and has a baby, Ishmael, with the slave woman, Hagar. Later, when God promises Abram a son through Sarai, Abram, he laughs at the prospect that two elderly people will be able to bear a child. Even after Abram and Sarai receive new names and Isaac is born, Abraham has trouble believing in the promises and goes up to sacrifice his son. Of course, God provides a ram instead. And we see this morning that moments after believing that he will have offspring, Abram disbelieves that God will give him the land to possess. God goes through this strange elaborate ritual to prove it, a ritual whose meaning is lost on us, but might remind us of the pillar of fire, the way God appears to the Israelites, leading them in the wilderness by night.
In Paul's letter to the Philippians, he is teaching them what it means to have citizenship in heaven. It is like being a resident alien in this land. To be Christian is to speak another language, have a different set of priorities, to have a different lifestyle, not to fit into this world very well. While we do, as Christians have our feet firmly planted here on earth, we stand firm in our values, in God's values. We may not feel like we belong, and that is for good reason. We belong to the Kingdom of God. As Kingdom Citizens, we don't abandon this world, but we bring God's values to transform this world to reflect the glory of God. As Christians we see the promises of God and we look at this world we live in and see this chasm. Something doesn't match very well here. Every tear will be wiped away? Every mouth will be fed? Widows and orphans will be cared for? Maybe we wonder, like Abram, will the Kingdom of God come to this place? This answer is yes, God keeps God's promises.
The Kingdom of God is very near, and already here, at the same time. I just received a flier last week about Laundry Love Milwaukie, a place for low-income people to come and do laundry for free. Of course I emailed them right away and I got an email back that they have use for my homemade laundry detergent that I make for pennies a load. The Kingdom of God is here. It is with kids in clean clothes, feeling more like they can fit in at school, able to concentrate on their schoolwork, feeling good about themselves, knowing they are valued. The Kingdom of God is here in a basket of clean laundry. The Kingdom of God is here on earth in a pit bull named Jonny, one of Michael Vick's fighting dogs, rehabilitated and now is part of a reading program at a library in San Francisco. He is a dog for kids to practice reading to—a nonjudgmental listener, who gives them his full attention.You know many other examples, I'm sure.
Now to one who really felt out of place, Jesus. He knew he didn't belong here, and yet all of us belong to him in his family. He keenly felt the disconnect between the promises and glory of God and this messed-up world. He was really feeling it in the Gospel reading. He's doing God's work, healing and casting out demons. Now the Pharisees tell him Herod wants to kill him. He's in Jerusalem, the place where the temple is, supposedly closest to God, and Jerusalem isn't a place of peace and blessing (PS salem in the word Jerusalem means peace). Instead Jerusalem is a place that kills prophets and scatters people. Jesus so longs for family and gathering and life, and all he sees around him is destruction and an unwillingness to work together, and the fox-like characteristics of its leaders. Foxes are especially known for preying on the young of other animals and Herod here is called a fox. Jesus identifies himself as a hen. Hens are especially known for gathering and protecting their young. Wouldn't we rather have a fox for our leader? No, because we are citizens of heaven where violence doesn't have any place. Jesus tells us in the verses just preceding these in the Gospel this morning that “Some who are first will be last and some that are last shall be first.” Maybe that's why Herod and the Pharisees get so riled up--they heard Jesus put them down and say they will be last. We have a chicken/fox reversal here. The chicken is going to win out and be first in the only time a chicken got the better of a fox outside of a fairy tale. The chicken in this case will die, but it won't stop God's Kingdom from coming and it won't keep God from gathering the brood under those motherly wings.
Now back to our citizenship. We are citizens of heaven, of the Kingdom of God. Is our heart with God. Do we value love and sharing and compassion, or have we become to assimilated into this world and its values? Have we given up trying to bring those values with us and maintaining our kingdom citizenship and become too much tied up in the values of this world? On the other hand, sometimes we are so wrapped up in our Kingdom Citizenship that we say to heck with this world and trying to change it to reflect kingdom values! Why should I care about the people of this world? I'll just wait to die and go to heaven and then I'll have it all. Heaven or hell is right here. Hell is when people go hungry, are disregarded, are hurting, afraid, and scattered. Heaven is when we are gathered under the wings of our mother hen, when we find connection, when we know safety and security, when we provide safety and security for others. And heaven and hell both have open borders, anyone can become a citizen. When we look around, do we see hell--the terrible circumstances people are in, their suffering and pain? When we look around, do we see the Kingdom of God, wonderful beauty and love and hope and generosity? I think the answer to both questions is yes. How do we reconcile these two worlds we live in? Do we wait for God to make it better, when things are bad, or do we let God work through us to bring in the Kingdom? I think sometimes we do wait for someone else to make it better, especially if we are comfortable ourselves, or if we don't feel empowered to do anything about it. But we must remember that those are our brothers and sisters under the protection of Jesus the mother hen, with us. If they don't know peace, our family is in turmoil--our family is incomplete. Even if we feel as helpless as a chicken, and all the foxes in the world are after us, all the powers of this world out to destroy us, Jesus stands firm and we stand because of him between those powers and those brothers and sisters who need us most. We wonder, will God keep those promises, like he did for Abraham. It might not look very promising. However, new life is the promise, not just for after we die, but right now--life out of death, the last being first and the first and strongest at the back of the line.
It was rather unreal, standing at the Berlin wall, broken, with re-bar sticking out every which way. I watched films about getting past that wall when it was so strong--the people killed trying to cross, the families split up. I watched that wall come down in German class in high school. Tell that fox, tell all that seems strong and divisive, that Jesus the hen is here, gathering, healing, casting out what is destructive and damaging. You make think you're having chicken and dumplings for dinner tonight. This hen will lay down her life but her values will go on and new life will go on, walls will come down, children will be gathered and it will be through the most unlikely, nonviolent citizens that the greatest love will grow until this world, this hell for so many people, will become the Kingdom of Heaven. We could never do it by our own power, but it is love, it is God and the strength of God's promises that make it an absolute certainty.