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The City of God

September 18, 2022

The City of God

Preacher:
Passage: Psalm 48
Service Type:

Note: This is the second of two sermons posted for September 17, 2022. The other, "Person. Place. Thing" was written first and announced in the newsletter and order of worship. But this is the one actually preached. Both are inspired by Psalm 48. 

 

Tomorrow morning the attention of the world will focus on Westminster Abbey in London. The queen of England, Elizabeth II, will be eulogized and laid to rest. Many people around the world will watch some or all of the ceremony in one of the great Christian cathedrals of the world. The service will be led I assume by the archbishop of Canterbury and the dean of Westminster, the pastor of the Westminster congregation. It is a state funeral of the longest reigning monarch in British history. It is an historic occasion.

I urge you to watch it and to watch it in the context of three things:

First, it is the most public and will be the most watched presentation of Christian faith and practice in decades. Perhaps a billion people will get a glimpse of the Christian understanding of life and death. The gospel will be read. Choirs will sing. Two sermons will be preached. This is the most public, more powerful platform of Christianity in the world.

Second, the queen was the Defender of the Faith and head of the Church of England. She was, throughout her reign, a genuine and dedicated Christian, attending to both personal and public opportunities for worship and formation. But in spite of her stellar witness, the practice of Christianity in Brittan, Scotland and Wales has been in steady decline. They have been ahead of us on the religion curve, but their churches are empty; the Church of England has lost much of its cultural clout; and a great percentage of English people no longer claim allegiance to the Church or to her Lord.

Third, this biblical text, psalm 48, is one of many that celebrates the merger of religion and politics. Like many countries cultures, the people of this book—first called Hebrews, then Israelites, finally jews—have longed for a regime that merged their faith and their politics, their priests and their kings, their church and their state.  Listen to this psalm as Sam reads it for us, and note the signs of this blending of God and King.

My message today is this: the highway called politics will not take you to the city called Jerusalem. The highway called politics will not take you to the city called Jerusalem.

Goodness knows we try!

People ancient and modern longed for the city of God, the holy city, the place where God’s will is done. We have prayed, “You will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We want God to rule on earth. We want the will of God to be done in us, among us, and around us. This is what we pray for.

So did they, the Hebrew-Israelite-Jewish people. This psalm is a testimony of that. The ancients wanted God’s ordained man on the throne and leading their armies. In this song, God is portrayed as a king, leading the hosts of heaven, defending the people of Israel, saving Jerusalem from danger and destruction, establishing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

They were confident that God was their ruler, and they were God’s people. But building nice religious building does not make a country holy and righteous.

Istanbul has the Sophia Hagia, Rome has St. Peter’s Basilica, New York has the Riverside Church, Paris has the Notre Dame Cathedral, and London has Westminster Abbey. And Jerusalem has the temple.

But none of these works of wood and stone, bronze and gold could make a country religious or righteous or just.

Jeremiah the prophet saw through all of this. You come into this fine building, he said, as recorded in the book of Jeremiah chapter 7.  You sing this call to worship: “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” You think is signals that God will bless you and honor you and protect you. The Israelites thought so

But the prophets of God declared to them that the highway called politics will not take you to Jerusalem, the city of God, the holy city, the kingdom of God.

II.

England tried the same thing.

In 1808 William Blake published a poem entitled Jerusalem. It is set to music and sung on many important occasions. Among elites, it is rivaled in importance only by the more familiar hymn, God save the queen. Maybe we will hear it tomorrow. We certainly will hear that song when Charles is enthroned. But they might sing also these words, evoking the British myth that Jesus, before he was taken into heaven, came to the island.

And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God on England's 
pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was 
Jerusalem builded here among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold: Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O 
clouds unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have 
built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.

This is a high-class version of what we call Christian nationalism. It declares the ambition to turn a state, a country, a city into the kingdom of God, to build Jerusalem with the castles and cathedrals, the rules and regulations, the legislation and legalism of human engineering.

 

It is the effort to mobilize religious people—jewish, or Christian, or Muslim—to seize power, and take office, and enact laws with this one thought in mind: the kingdom of God, the rule of righteousness, the suppression of sin.  To build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.

This was the motivation for New England when the puritans crossed the seas. This is the motivation of the Orthodox who have gradually seized control of once-secular Israel. This is what galvanizes hordes of Muslim faithful to topple secular regimes and install imams in places of power. It is the use of political power to create the kingdom of God, to think the highway called politics will take you to the city named Jerusalem.

It is a perennial threat in Christianized countries around the world. Today in Brazil, led by the Pentecostal president Bolsonaro; today in Russia, led by the Orthodox patriarch Kirill; and in the United States, led by ministers and lay people who want to make American great by taking us back to such supposed period of idealized Christianity. In all these of these Christianized countries, the rise of Christian Nationalism threatens stability, justice, and democracy itself.

Today, in our country, the most powerful political movement is called Christian Nationalism. It is the army of people who carry two flags: the Christian flag and the American flag.

They aspire to take dominion over all public things. It is a version of Christian nationalism known as Dominionism. They aspire to control what they call the seven mountains of cultural influence: media, education, family, religion, business, government, and entertainment. They envision sitting the seats of power in all of these arenas of life: the control the news, the run the schools, the structure the family according to their doctrines of male headship, to take over denominations, as they did Southern Baptists and as they are now among United Methodists, to run companies implement rules they intend for congress, like denying equal rights to LGBTQ people, as with Chick-fil-a, or deny women the medical care they need, as Hobby Lobby; to create entertainment that expresses these preferences, from Fox news to Christian movies; to run the government, at every level, from school boards to the supreme court, from state legislatures to the white house. Shall I name names?

This is their political road to the city of Jerusalem. They want to say, we are making a Christian country, we are obeying the will of God, we are building Jerusalem in this fair and pleasant land.

It looks good to some people, it sounds good to some people, it feels good to some people, especially when the language of Zion, as we say about Christian vocabulary, when the language of Zion is used to describe what they want to force on all of us. And millions of faithful believers all over the world are following these pied pipers.

This is what is happening in Russia and Ukraine. Russian people have long valued what they call Russian Civilization as an alternative to the West, to the secular, decadent, ungodly west, by which they mean Europe and America. They point to the decline of church affiliation, the rise of science and secularism, and the breakdown of traditional values like marriage, and worship.

Russian Christian Orthodoxy, they contend, offers a pure version of Christian Civilization. This is why Kirill, the patriarch, is conspiring with Putin, the president, to seize Ukraine. A Few years ago, the Orthodox Christian churches of Ukraine broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church because of the heavy handed, autocratic rule of the patriarch and the president.  Ukraine wanted more of the freedoms offered by the west instead of the control promised by Russia.

 

The political road offered by Russian Orthodoxy and Russian autocracy does not lead to the promised land, the new Jerusalem, the city of God. Ukrainian people want nothing of it, and neither do we!

III.

Which brings us to the funeral.

On the top of the casket is the Queens crown. For 70 years, she wore it with simplicity, with dignity, with righteousness. Elizbeth was all her life a devout and observant Christian woman.  It is reported that she confessed to her chaplain at one point, “I hope Jesus returns while I am the Queen of England, for I want to lay my crown at the feet of Jesus.”

I love this sentiment. I also want lay at the feet of Jesus any talent or gift or opportunity given to me. I want to serve Jesus with the best I have, with all that I am, with the time and talent God has given me.  I honor the queen for her devotion to Jesus, her love of God, and her serve to the people.

Here is the problem. It is that crown. At its center is a diamond, the largest diamond in the world. It was found in India. It was taken from India. It was stolen from others during the days of the British rule. It is worth $400 million.

That diamond contaminates the crown; it compromises the head upon which it sits. The British Royal family is among the wealthiest families in the world. Their wealth is not from Britain, nor from their subjects on the island of Britain.

England got wealthy taking from the poor to make themselves rich. Chief among these colonial strategies was the slave trade.  Ships full of cotton picked by slaves in the southern states sailed to London, sold their cotton to the clothing factories of England. Those factories loaded up their ships with colorful clothing and sailed to the west coast of Africa. There they traded cotton clothing for black bodies, captured by other black bodies through West Africa.  These black bodies were loaded onto slave ships, strapped down in decks below the water line, unable to move, or stand, or fight off the rats. Those that survived—about 70 % were sold at auction in places like Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans into a life of slavery.

Southern church members got wealthy, British industrialists got wealthy, African slave traders got wealthy, and the British monarchy got extremely wealthy.

 

That is the problem with the crown. That is what compromises the Queen. That is how the highway called politics fails to take us to the city of God, the new Jerusalem.

III.

Which brings us to this command of Jesus, “I was a stranger, and you took me in.”

All over the world, people are fleeing danger and death to seek some version of the Promised Land. They flee war in Syria and Ukraine; they flee drugs in Mexica and Nicaragua. They flee oppression in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are looking for the promised land. They want to come to the United States, because we lift our lamp beside the golden door,” she declares from New York Harbor.

We need to move Miss Liberty to the Rio Grande. We need to receive these people of God, most of them Christians, as our brothers and sisters in the faith and practice of Christianity, as our fellow humans seeking safety, and work, and happiness. We need to offer them green cards, and a place to sleep, and food to eat. If ever there is a test of our obedience to Jesus it is this: I was hungry and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you healed me. I was incarcerated and you visited me. I was a stranger, and you took me in.

This week, one of the empowered Christian nationalist in Texas, conspired with another Christian nationalist in Florida, to trick these people of God. Get on this airplane, they said, and we will take you to the promised land, to the city of God, to the new Jerusalem where you will have food, and friends, and a place to work. But when the plane landed, it was not Jerusalem, it was Martha’s Vineyard.

It was a stunt, a cruel trick, a political slight of hand.

But God…. but God… but God turned the tables on those Christian Nationalist. He called forth a small Christian congregation on Martha’s Vineyard, the St. Andrews Anglican Church. They knew how to followers of Jesus. They dropped their plans, they rushed to the airfield, they welcomed the people with the open arms of Jesus.

It was not a congress but a faithful congregation. It was not a corporation or a federal court, taken over by Christian nationalists. It was a small, humble gathering of God’s people, who feed the hungry, who housed the homeless, who welcomed the stranger. It was Jesus, and there was the city of God.

 

 

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