Sunday, November 3, 2019
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1 & Philippians 3:17-4:1
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Because of the demands of my doctor of ministry program, I haven’t been able to read for pleasure much over the past couple of years. The desire to read what I want to read (not what I’m required to read!) may be the single biggest factor in my pushing to finish this degree, but I did recently hit a window of time where I could go over to the library, wander the aisles, and select a book I just felt like reading. It’s been out for almost 15 years, but I finally picked up David McCullough’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book titled 1776, which is a detailed look into the revolutionary times in America. (I know. Light reading, right?) But I’ve enjoyed getting to know more in-depth the people and the events of that era. King George III and George Washington become three-dimensional. McCullough writes in such a way that it is easy to imagine what the fights for Boston and New York looked like – the boredom of waiting, the difficulties of having enough supplies, and the massive threat of the British military by land and sea.
My recollection of American history from high school largely centers around oversimplifications – “the shot heard ‘round the world,” Washington the legend who would never tell a lie, and so on. But this book shows a far more complex picture of life and loyalties in that time. The colonists had divided allegiances. Some very clearly were loyal to King George. Some were loyal because they believed that God ordained the king to rule over them, and some were because they figured that the British would defeat the American revolutionaries.
The revolutionaries made a decision to be different from the loyalists. Their citizenship was British, but they determined that they had a new citizenship in a country that would be free from the reign of King George III. It was this determination that caused them to risk their lives and liberty to wage a revolution against very difficult odds. No longer were they citizens of the British Empire. Now they were forming a new nation with new citizens to be governed differently. When they defeated the British, their citizenship became American, and they lived in a new manner and according to new principles.
We are now three-quarters of the way through Philippians, and this is the second time we have encountered citizenship. I’m sure you all recall my third sermon on Philippians – right? – where in 1:27 Paul uses that surprising Greek word “politeuesthe” to describe the way the Philippians are to behave as a small group of Christians living in a powerful Roman colony. Well, here in 3:20 a word related to “politeuesthe” occurs, and it translates into “citizenship.” “But our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul writes to them, setting them up as a colony within a Roman colony. They are in some ways like the American revolutionaries. These Christians have an allegiance that supersedes their expected societal role. Whether they were actually citizens of Rome or they were merely residents of Philippi, Paul makes the staggering claim that they have a higher and better citizenship – one in heaven. They are residents of God’s kingdom, and their calling is to live their lives in a manner that is worthy of this higher and better kingdom. Whatever allegiances they had they must now set aside because of the claim God has on their lives in Christ Jesus.
As Christians we are to be in the world but not of the world. On Jesus’ final night with his disciples before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed for them. It’s a long prayer found in John 17, but listen to these couple of verses in that prayer. Jesus prays for them and for us, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17:15-16). Both Jesus and Paul are adamant that those who seek to be disciples find themselves with an uncomfortable place in the world – in it but not of it. Christians become the counter-narrative to all the hatred, greed, violence, and power plays of the world for our citizenship is not here. We answer to a higher authority.
Have you ever felt entirely out of place? Like you were in a room but not really of the room? I have many times, and I’m pretty sure that happens most often when there is dancing doing on. My high school used to have dances every few weeks, and basically the entire school would show up to them because, frankly, nothing else was happening for teens on a Saturday night in my hometown. I’d go because my friends were there, but I was always miserable. I couldn’t dance. I still don’t think I can dance. Early in the fall of my freshman year I remember going into our spare room with a boombox and some good 90s rap to try to figure out some dance moves while no one was looking. It felt awkward even with no one looking, but sure enough my brothers heard the music and stormed the room. When they saw my gyrations, they fell on the floor laughing at me. Who practices for a high school dance? they asked. You should just move your body in the moment. I always felt in the high school dance but not of it.
In one of my grad school stints I spent a month in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa. Our trip leaders decided that one of our fun activities would be to go to a nightclub in the heart of Ouagadougou. Yes, that’s a real city. Now, you’d figure that if there was ever an opportunity for me to cut loose on the dance floor, it would be in Ouagadougou with a group of people who didn’t know me and who would never see me again. But it was miserable. I spent most of the night in a dark corner waiting for it to all end. In it but not of it. I really didn’t know how to best behave – to be fully true to myself and to be fully present in the situation. How does someone learn how to do that?
Paul answers this question pretty directly. His answer comes in both of our passages. Imitation. Do as I do. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 11. “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us,” he writes to the Philippians. At first that sounds offensive to me, and perhaps it seems strange to you as well. I couldn’t imagine giving someone this advice, “Just live like I do, and then you’ll be on the right track.” It sounds arrogant, yet the Bible advises us all to find Christ-like people and to learn from them how to be Christ-like. This is especially vital in a world where we are citizens of heaven, a role that does not always sync well with our others loyalties. We pray the Lord’s Prayer every week in worship, and it’s such a beautiful but subversive prayer. We pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s a prayer that highlights our loyalty to God’s reign above all other loyalties. It’s a prayer that acknowledges that this world is not ultimately our home, but it also expresses a deep desire to make a difference in our community, nation, and world. And Paul says that we do that by finding people worthy of imitating and doing as they do.
This Sunday is filled with reminders about how God has given us so many traditions and people who have helped direct us in the way of Christ. In a few minutes we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Paul describes this act just a few verses after writing about imitation in 1 Corinthians 11. It is a meal where Jesus embodies the love of God for the world. It is a meal where we join in with Christians from all times and places to proclaim that we live by a different narrative – one of grace. It is an act that billions of people have repeated through the ages, and in our imitation of them, the Spirit communicates into our hearts and lives about God’s love for the world and for us individually.
But there’s a second reminder today. We will observe All Saints’ Day in just a few moments. While this observance helps us in our grief over the death of so many faithful brothers and sisters, it also is a strong reminder that God has given us so many people who have helped shape our faith and lives. While none of these saints was perfect, God gave them to us to lead us in the way of Christ. In their own ways, perhaps you have found things not only admirable but also worthy of imitation. We do not live this life alone. We do not practice this faith alone. God has given us person after person as a gift to us and to the world. Each of these people has had a unique impact on the world and has been a part of our story here at First Pres. Today we are grateful for them. Today we remember God’s promises for them and for us that because of Jesus death is a broken power whose ultimate defeat is certain.
Friends, Christians are in the world but not of it. It is difficult to know how to live this life faithfully, particularly because we have a calling to live differently than the basic expectations of our culture. Yet, God has given us people to imitate. They are not perfect. (Paul certainly wasn’t perfect but still he offered himself as an example.) You aren’t perfect. I’m not. But the Christian faith is an imitation game. We seek to imitate Christ in how we live, which means we find Christ-like people who can help us live faithfully. And, of course, it means that we also become those imperfectly Christ-like people others look to in order to understand what it means to live the reality of God’s reign today. It’s not easy, but thank God for all the saints who help show us the way.