Preached at Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends
July 23, 2012
After the assassination of civil rights leader, Medgar Evers in 1963 , Bob Dylan wrote a song called “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” In that song, Dylan admits that a single white man pulled the trigger that killed Medgar Evers, but he blames the action on power structures of the time—education, law, politics—that exploited the poor white man’s need to be better than someone. Racism was taught and used to support and advance the powers and principalities. My anxiety about American Christians is that we may be pawns in someone else’s wicked game.
What I want to talk about is the Biblical teaching that at a deep level Christians don’t actually fit in, not in America, not in any system, because we belong to a different city, a different kingdom or nation, and our first loyalty is to the leader there—our Lord Jesus Christ. This theme of faithful homelessness runs through the whole Bible and through our best moments as Quakers, and as we take a look at it, we can see how we are to pray for the nations of our world, and particularly our own nation, for the cities and states we live in, and for our government and how we are to live peacefully with our neighbors.
First, we pray for God’s mercy on those eligible for judgment.
Our first faithful exile is Abraham, who left his home city to follow God’s leading into a land God promised to his children. Abraham never owned any of this land except for the tomb in which he buried his wife Sarah. Instead, he was a nomad on it, and his sojourn there is a visual parable for our existence in this world that groans for the unveiling of the children of God, for redemption. We also are nomads.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents…
For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
So, like Abraham, we are in two realities at the same time: this world and the Kingdom of God. We are nomads in this world because we are looking for the City of God, because we are citizens of the Kingdom of God.
We are in this world, but it doesn’t own us. How do we then relate to this world?
Genesis 18 tells us one of the ways Abraham related to his world. God shared with Abraham that judgment was going to fall on Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham was struck with grief. He had gone to war on behalf of the king of Sodom, and they had a sort of mutual respect. Abraham’s nephew Lot had moved into Sodom and done well there.
So Abraham talked with God. He interceded for Sodom. What if there are 50 righteous people there, will you still destroy it? What if there are 45, 40, 30, 20? What if there are 10? Each time, God relented, agreeing with Abraham that if there were finally only 10 righteous persons in Sodom, he would spare the city. You know the story, and how there were not even 10 righteous persons there. But what I want to point to is how Abraham grieved over the world of which he was not even a citizen, how he prayed for mercy for it. The fact that judgment fell on Sodom asks us to believe that an omniscient God knows better than we how to judge and when to judge. What we learn, however, is Abraham prayed for his world, and we ought also to pray for ours.
Pray for the nation’s well-being, even if they worship idols.
In the history of Israel, after they became the owners of the land promised to Abraham, they were faithless and worshiped things other than God. God’s way of getting their attention was to uproot them from home and send them as captives into Babylon. They could live with their families in homes there, but they were not free to leave. They deeply missed their homeland, and some who claimed to speak for God promised them that their captivity would be short. But the prophet Jeremiah called those prophets liars and said to the Jews living in Babylon:
Jeremiah 29: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel to all the exiles I have sent from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens, eat the produce. Marry and have children; let those children marry and bear children. Multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.
Interesting, isn’t it? Here they are under house arrest, so to speak, with freedom to go to the marketplace but not freedom to go home to Israel. They are surrounded by idol-worshipers, and they cannot carry out their temple worship. Yet Jeremiah counsels them to settle down, have families, and pray for the welfare of Babylon.
Because we can vote, we feel we have some control over the direction of the nation, and half of us are angry every election to see that God lost again. Many American Christians feel like this country has become a place where we are exiles. We mourn that our nation has no moral center and is worshiping idols. What should we do as exiles in our own country?
We should pray for things to go well. Pray for peace, pray for prosperity, no matter who is the president or on the Supreme Court or the governor of our state or the mayor of our town. In its prosperity and peace is our own, says Jeremiah. And during a peaceful exile, we can raise families who obey the true God and are faithful to him.
This advice to the Jews in Babylon runs counter to our culture wars. Instead of badmouthing Democrats or Republicans, American Christians can and ought to band together to pray for the well-being of this nation and the nations where other Christians live, in fact for the whole global village.
Like Sodom, Babylon was judged by God, who is, after all, omniscient about the timing of judgment. This is another lesson we can take away.
Obey the laws and pay your taxes; give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.
Those Christians who lived in Rome, right under the Emperor’s nose, could be hauled into court and required to swear an oath of loyalty that included a statement that the Emperor was divine. Into this context, St. Paul wrote the following:
Romans 13: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
This reminds me of Quaker history. During the English Civil War, Quakers were always in trouble. Even though they lived in a Christian nation, they confronted the principality within political power every time they refused to take the loyalty oath to whoever was in power that day, whether to Oliver Cromwell or to King Charles II. As a people of prayer, Quakers felt compelled to act on the words of Jesus to “swear not at all.” But, like Paul invoking his Roman citizenship, Fox and Margaret Fell and others visited Cromwell and later the King to plead for justice, for the magistrate’s sword to fall on evil doers, not on peaceful people who belonged to the kingdom of God and did no harm to their neighbors.
St Paul goes on to write about our posture toward those who share our space on this earth:
Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments about adultery, murder, theft, coveting and any other commandment are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Let us live honorably as in the day, laying aside the works of darkness, wearing the armor of light. Let us not live in reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy. Instead put on the Lord Jesus Christ and don’t try to gratify every desire.
The Palestine Jesus came to was not independent, but was a territory in the Roman Empire. Significantly, the Roman armies as they occupied all these territories also put an end to local conflicts and wars, so that there was order where before there was danger and chaos. And yet some among the occupied peoples would cheerfully have traded the Pax Romana for the right to be their own nation with their own government. In the midst of the chosen people in their promised homeland, Jesus responded to Pilate’s question “Are you the king of the Jews?” with this: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”(John 18:33-38)
Jesus is the king and Jesus is the truth: John 14:6 I am he in whom the truth is summed up and impersonated. And the judgment is that Jesus came into the world to light it up and people preferred the darkness to the light because he exposed their evil. May we take the opportunity of meeting Jesus to move closer to the light rather than running from it.
We don’t declare war on other people, whether the war is cultural or physical. Just as the kingdom of God is invisible but real within and among us, so also are the enemies of our souls. And the battlefield is prayer.
Put on the whole armor of God in order to stand against the wiles of the Devil, for we struggle not against flesh and blood enemies but against the rulers (arche, as in archetypes), the authorities (the judges), the cosmic rulers of darkness (blindness, ignorance of spiritual truths) in our time, the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places…stand therefore, having protected your guts with the belt of truth and your heart with the breastplate of righteousness (integrity in thought, word, deed), wearing whatever readies you to proclaim the gospel of peace (harmony and tranquility between people and between people and God), holding the shield of faith and wearing the helmet of salvation, armed with the sword of the Spirit, speaking the word of God. Then pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and pleading. Stay alert and always persevere in pleading for all the saints.
Beloved, let us love each other, for love comes from God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God; those who do not love, do not know God for God IS love. 1 John 4:7, 8.
Our city is not an earthly city, not an earthly kingdom or nation. The foundation, the blueprints and buildings all come from God who is truth; God sent Jesus who is the Truth,; Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who will guide us into all truth. And the truth sets us free to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.
Like Abraham, we are called by God to live by faith, waiting for the City of God to be given to us, the new Jerusalem that John saw descending from heaven. In that city, all tears are wiped away, there is healing for all nations, and we share in the wedding supper of the Lamb of God. Is it here yet? Here and there we catch gleams of it, and we cannot get enough. This is the city where God is the light, where Jesus is the King, and where the drama of salvation has its fulfillment.
Jesus said that we act out of our hearts, our imaginations. George Fox talked about Sodom as a parable for the wicked imagination that dwells within each of us. We know our own need for mercy. What if we pray for mercy for our neighbors when their behaviors scandalize or repel us? Like us, they may also have a part of their hearts hungering for God. We can pray for the same mercy for them as we hope for ourselves.
Our prayers for the world we live in, to which we don’t belong, are for the well-being of those who do belong to it. We recognize that God has set up governments to keep peace, to limit wrongdoing, and God expects us to be good citizens, paying our taxes, paying fees, respecting and honoring the authorities. Yet because Jesus is our King and we belong in and to his kingdom, we are not pawns in their game. We are to owe others only love. Love fulfills the law. When we live according to love, we discipline the desires of our bodies and the lusts of our imaginations.
We fight the evil around us through prayer, as Ephesians teaches us. We wear the protection provided by God’s grace. When we speak or act the prophetic word of God, we carry into the enemy territory the good news of peace and harmony between humans and between humans and God.
Come ye that love the Lord and let your joys be known
Join in a song with sweet accord, (2X)
And thus surround the throne (2X)
We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion,
We’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.
Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God,
But children of the heavenly King (2X)
May speak their joys abroad,(2X)
Then let our songs abound, and every tear be dry;
We’re marching through Immanuel’s ground (2X)
To fairer worlds on high (2X)