Citizenship

My best memories of the 4th of July have to be the days when I was in middle school and I went on vacation to visit my mom's family in Greenville, SC.

Fireworks were/are legal in SC and not in FL where I lived/live.  This would account for all of the fireworks stands in SC & GA on the interstate that leads in and out of FL.  I am not sure why I am abbreviating the names of these states, but there you go. 

I remember one summer we went to the fireworks store in Greenville prior to the 4th.  I was given the green light by my mom to spend a certain amount of money on explosives.  This is the kind of green light that every middle school boy wants to receive.  Between all of my cousins we obtained enough fireworks to blow up a small car or a shed.  It was a lot of fireworks.

As soon as it was dark we commenced setting off bottle rockets, Roman candles, spinners, fountains, Black Cats and M-80's.  It was magical. 

In a moment of infinite wisdom I lit a Black Cat firecracker and cocked my arm to throw it. We had been doing this all evening, you see.  I realize this wasn't the most safe thing in the world to do, but it was fun to light and throw firecrackers especially if you could throw it next to someone who wasn't expecting it.  At any rate, I cocked my arm and was set to throw the lit firecracker at my unsuspecting cousin who was mesmerized by something or other.  I could envision the surprise on his face when the firecracker exploded next to his feet.  I prayed that he would wet himself.

Instead, I heard a huge bang in my right ear, and it instantly started ringing.  That's when the pain in my hand hit me.  I held it up, half expecting to see a bloody stump.  Instead I just saw my hand complete with all of its fingers, most of which were a sickly looking black from the firecracker.  My cousin, realizing what had occurred, laughed at me uproariously.  I hit him in the arm with my left fist. 

There's some sort of metaphor in the midst of that story---a metaphor of how those of us who are privileged enough to be called Americans tend to take our freedom for granted, celebrate our national holidays wrongly, engage in shameless consumerism, materialism and triumphalism, and selfishly lash out at those who don't see things our way.  And sometimes we have things blow up in our face as a result.

I guess that sort of works.  Or it could just be a testament to my stupidity. 

This week in the middle of countless meetings and other assorted pastoral duties, I sat down to contemplate the sermon that I plan on preaching this Sunday.  This Sunday is the 4th of July.  I haven't had to preach on a 4th of July before, so I was conflicted on how to approach it.  Some of my colleagues simply made a choice to ignore it altogether and continue preaching the lectionary or the sermon series they were in the midst of at the time.  Others simply conceded singing "America The Beautiful" as their nod to the day. 

I think it's fairly myopic to hold a worship service in America on such an important holiday and to say nothing about it.  Maybe myopic isn't the word.  I think self-indulgent is probably better.  The way I look at it, us pastor types have a huge opportunity this Sunday to say some important things about being a citizen of the kingdom of God in addition to being a citizen of our country. 

I've always been uncomfortable when Christians blur the lines between their patriotism and their faith. The rhetoric over what is and what isn't patriotic really came to a head during the last couple of presidential elections.  A lot of Christians had clear ideas that patriotism meant supporting a particular political party.  Some made it known that their Christian faith was an integral aspect of their views on war.  It got ugly. 

I found the picture to the right during an internet search of "cross & flag."  It is certainly beautiful.  I realize that there are people who look at this picture and get a thrill in their heart to see the American flag as a backdrop to Calvary's cross.

I also know that there are some folks who will see this and it will grieve them deeply.

The way I see it, those of us who call ourselves Christians are called first and foremost to be citizens of the kingdom of God.  Our loyalty is to Christ not to a political party.  Our ideas of patriotism as they relate to the country of our birth should be a distant second to our fierce love and devotion for the God whose grace allowed us to be born again. 

But this doesn't mean that we shouldn't be a good citizen of our country.  It doesn't mean that we refuse to see the positive effects that patriotism can have on our society and our culture.  It doesn't mean that we treat every person or statement that professes a love of America with suspicion and disdain. 

I was planning my sermons several months ago, and saw the date.  I remember writing the word "citizenship" on the paper I was using to transcribe my sermon ideas.  At the time I wasn't sure what would happen.  What followed was that God led me to Revelation 21

I don't often preach from Revelation.  It's scary to tackle, to be honest.  But there is such beauty and hope in Revelation, along with some serious come-to-Jesus-prophetic-revival-passages that I have had to repent of my neglect of it. 

Here's the passage that I read:
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life.
 This vision that John the Revelator had is of the City of God in all it's splendor and wonder.  We get a glimpse into it's character as well as a glimpse at it's citizens.  There's no need for a church (temple), which tells us that there is no need for denominations and divisions over theology.  The source of all theology is present in the Trinity.  The city has no need for lamps or streetlights because the Trinity is the source of light and there is no more night when the gates have to be shut to keep out danger.  The gates to the city are wide open for all to enter.  The city is the destination for all nations and all rulers to come and bring not aggression but tribute. 

And the citizens are those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life. 

If we dig around in Revelation we discover that the people whose names are not in the Lamb's book of life are those who have not "fornicated" (nice) with Babylon or colluded with The Beast.  The Beast is the symbol of the twisted side of Empire, and Babylon is a symbol of societies moral decay.  Those who have aligned themselves with Babylon and The Beast demonstrate their belief that they don't need God, they are full of Pride, they are consumed with Materialism, practice Idolatry, engage in Triumphalism (belief that their success is their doing) and they show Apathy towards Justice and Mercy. 

Jesus told his disciples a parable in Matthew 25.  He said that at the end of all days that He would stand before the nations and would differentiate between those who were going to be part of God's eternal kingdom and those who weren't.  Those that are not allowed into the City of God in Jesus' parable are those who demonstrate the kind of qualities we just mentioned. 

His words spoke to the urgent danger of accepting other values as ultimate.  And it's sad because the people in the parable who didn't get in were shocked that they weren't admitted. 

It should dismay us as Christians that so many Americans seem to be falling into the same kind of sin that both Jesus and John revealed in their prophetic stories.  It should dismay us even further to see so many Christians blindly doing the same.  

Patriotism has it's place in our culture.  We should be proud of the good aspects of our country while being honest about the things that disappoint us.  We should teach our children proper respect for our flag--because so many brave people have died in service to the nation it represents.  Our national holidays should be celebrated with joy and energy as an expression of gratitude for the blessings we have received as a nation. 

Heck, I don't even really like soccer, but when the U.S. team won their group in the World Cup I was ready to go out and buy a Team USA soccer jersey, and chanted "USA! USA! USA!" when they won their last match.  Granted, when they lost I pretty much didn't watch another moment of the World Cup----which sort of proves my point. Patriotism has it's place.

But in the end, I am a Christian first. I love these lyrics from the Derek Webb song, "King and a Kingdom."  It really says it all:
my first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man
my first allegiance is not to democracy or blood
it's to a king & a kingdom...
Amen and Amen.

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