Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Forays in Civic Religion

When Jesus appeared in Galilee announcing the Good News, he said, "Believe the gospel: God's reign is arriving!" (see Mk 1.15)

When Peter outlined the same gospel after the Holy Spirit arrived during Pentecost, its heart was that the one who was crucified and resurrected has been made "both Lord and Messiah" (Act 2.36). Years later, when a vision directs him to the residence of a Roman centurion (the equivalent of an US Army captain), Peter states the gospel again: "God preached peace to the Israelites through Jesus Christ--this one is Lord of all" (Acts 10.36).

Paul has the same thing to say when he meets an overwhelmed Roman jailor after an earthquake in Philippi: "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved" (Acts 16.31). In his later letter to the house churches in Rome, he wrote, "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe with your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved" (Ro 10.9).

The Good News has a great deal to do with Jesus being Lord (a title the Roman emperor like to claim, meaning master or ruler). The generations of believers that followed the NT saints often were penalized life itself for holding steadfastly to this claim. They wouldn't offer the incense to the emperor, because their allegiance was to another.

I believe the gospel still boils down to this bold assertion: that in every single area of human existence, God has made his Son and Messiah Lord and Ruler, and there is no other. Not President Obama. Not Prime Minister Harper. Not any part of the government or economy or culture of the Land of the Free or the True North, Strong and Free. My allegiance isn't to job creation or economic growth or security. Nor is my obedience commanded by advertising or brand loyalty. My allegiance, my obedience is to Jesus alone. No one else, nothing else has the right to make me pull out my credit card or take up arms. Jesus is Lord.

So when our local ministerial decided to host a Canada Day service in the park, I was a bit nervous. So often our public church service, especially during seasons of national enthusiasm, are nothing more than civic religion. (We burn incense to our Caesars in our own ways.) God's name gets inserted into blessings for us, against them, that reflect nothing of the divine heart we meet in Jesus. We praise the godliness of our leaders, living or dead, and attribute every good thing in our lives to the good moral quality and good deeds of our neighbors, in a tit-for-tat divine economy.

After talking with folks in our congregation, I went forward with participating in the service. One way to love our town is to be present for our group celebrations. I scrambled to put together a musical number for the morning. 

Then I sat down before a blank page, praying for the right words to say. 

You can read below what I came up with. I'm not sure I hit the mark, struck the proper balance between honest thanksgiving and prophetic reminder.

I can say that I'm thankful for how many of the other churches and pastors handled the morning. Civic religion dominated the morning, but at points speakers sounded through the noisy "Hail Caesars!" with words about Jesus and his call to generosity, care for the refugee, and prayer.

I'm curious to hear your stories about negotiating the sketchy terrain of religious ceremonies on national holidays. Let me know in the comments.

Check out my short talk after the jump.

We’re here today to thank God for what’s best in this nation. We’re also here to pray for its needs. I enjoy a good party, especially one with good food. I also know it’s important to pray for a world beset and broken by so many problems, injustices, tragedies.

As I got ready for this morning, I happened across a passage from one of the Hebrew Bible Prophets, one of those Old Testament truth-tellers. The prophet’s name was Micah. He lived in times of great economic prosperity and military success and also in times of some devastating setbacks for the Israelites. (This doesn’t sound too different from the world we’ve known over the last ten years, ups-and-downs, down-and ups.) Some of the political leaders of his day handled these changes well, and others not so well.

God gave Micah a vision of what an ideal nation would look like, what kind of nation meets every one of God’s hopes and dreams for a society. Listen to a bit of Mic ch 4 to hear God’s picture of this nation-to-come:
In the last days, the mountain of the LORD’s house will be established as the most important of all the mountains; it will be raised up above the other hills, and people from all over the world will stream to it.

Many nations will come and say, “Let us go to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob’s God. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”

For the LORD’s instructions will go out from Zion; his word will go out from Jerusalem. He will mediate between many nations and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer take up arms against nation, nor train for war anymore.
That’s God’s idea of a good nation, a good country. We need to thank God for every way we see that kingdom-of-God reality, even if for only a moment, in some of the social and economic realities in Canada, in Saskatchewan, in Warman. When we feel secure in our homes and in our ability to pay for them and stock their kitchen’s with food, that’s a taste of God’s blessing. When Jesus comes again as true king, as true prime minister or president or premier, we know that safe and satisfied homes are part of what he’s bringing. We could say the same thing about some of the social safety nets in place in this country. Surely when Jesus comes no person in need will be left to fend for themselves.

However, when we listen to Micah’s prophecy about good government, there are certain places, many places where this nation and every nation falls short. Jesus is the only true Prince of Peace. When we feel that gap, that longing for more, for a more just society, for a more compassionate society, we must turn to prayer. We must pray that our leaders look to God’s vision for the justice system, for trade practices, for peacemaking, for care for our environment. God has wisdom and compassion to share with our leaders if they will ask him for it.

As we pray and work for a nation, a society, a city that lives up to God’s dreams, I think another passage from Micah offers us some guidance. Micah, ch 6, v 8, says, He has shown you, O man, what is good and what the LORD expects from you: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

These are simple instructions. If we followed them, I’m sure we’d be on the path to living out God’s dreams, for our nation, for our province, for our city. 

But notice that they aren’t addressed to an entire kingdom, or even to a town or village. No, God is speaking to each of us, women, men, and children, personally. This is what God wants for us. Justice, mercy, and to walk with God.

I pray that we each continue to walk down this path. Amen.

Thank you for your letting me share with you some during this celebration.

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