Sunday, October 6, 2019

Phil Kniss: Of hope and of nations

Nations and the Rule of God – World Communion Sunday
Micah 4:1-4; Psalms 33:8-17, 22

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You’ve all seen beautiful photos of our planet from space.
The most famous photo of God’s Good Earth
was one of the earthrise over the moon,
taken by astronaut William Anders 51 years ago,
during the Apollo 8 orbit around the moon.
That was the first time a human being
saw the earth from that vantage point.
Nature photographer Galen Rowell said it was
“the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

Up until then most depictions of our globe
came with a very human overlay,
like the one on our bulletin cover.
They had different-colored areas in various shapes and sizes,
with crisp black boundary lines.
Those colors and lines do not physically exist.
They are human political creations.
They are the borders of nations.

So . . . are these national political entities
part of God’s creation?
Are they part of God’s great plan of shalom?
Do they contribute to the healing of the cosmos,
or do they further its destruction?
How should we people of God view these nations?
As instruments in God’s hands?
As enemies of God?
Or as something in between?

It seems to me that we cannot be good citizens of this earth,
and care for it adequately,
without coming to love and appreciate both depictions of the globe—
the view from space,
and the global political map.
We are organized into nations.
God has ordained it to be so.
The apostle Paul, in his sermon to the Greeks in Athens,
which we heard read a few minutes ago in Acts 17, said,
“From one ancestor God made all nations
to inhabit the whole earth,
and God allotted the times of their existence
and the boundaries of the places where they would live.”
So . . . Paul contends that God drew the map, so to speak.
Now Paul didn’t know about our modern forms of nation-states,
but the underlying truth is that God created us human beings
with a need to connect,
a need to be in good relationship with one another.
And relationships must have structures of some kind.
Nations form because of the way God made us.

But, oh does that make life complicated!
And oh, does make the care of creation complicated.

And today, to make matters worse,
we live in an age of hyper-nationalism.
Nations set their national priorities
according to short-term self-interest,
usually measured in dollars, euros, pounds, and rubles,
rather than by the good of all people
or the health of the planet.

In our country, we hear “America First” chanted all the time.
As a nation we are withdrawing
from one international treaty after another—
economic and environmental treaties—
because we say, they are not “good for us.”
We might want to blame our current president for all of this,
but we cannot.
American politics is not unique in this regard.
This same “my-country-first” ideology
is echoed in the UK with Brexit,
and in Italy, Spain, Hungary, India, Brazil,
Philippines, China, and many, many more,
where nationalist parties and personalities are on the rise.

Because of popular demand, politicians are rewarded
when they strengthen their national borders,
keep out unwanted immigrants,
and tighten the drawstrings on their country’s money bags.
Record numbers of refugees and displaced people worldwide
does not make the nations of the world any more compassionate.
Many nations say, “if it doesn’t help our bottom line,
then it’s not our problem to solve.”

But . . . no matter how liberal your personal political leaning may be,
you don’t have any high moral ground to stand on, sorry to say.
It is default human nature, for you, for me.
We all do it when we are under stress.
We turn inward.
We circle the wagons.
We put our interests above all else.
It’s hard for us to point fingers at . . .
nations of people, acting like people.

Yet, we hold on to hope. Why?
What gives us hope in the face of growing nationalism?
Is there any picture of the future
where nations collaborate with God for God’s purposes,
instead of working actively against God’s purposes?

Well, if we read much world history,
it becomes clear that no earthly empire is an eternal empire.
They rise, and they fall.

And according to the psalmist, God watches over it all, observant.
God sees all the nationalist rumblings.
God hears the chants—“America first!” “Britain first!” “Italy first!”
And God looks down, perhaps with a bit of divine amazement.

Listen again, to part of Psalm 33,
“Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For God spoke, and it came to be.
Yahweh brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
God frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The Lord looks down from heaven;
he sees all humankind.
From where he sits enthroned he watches
all the inhabitants of the earth . . .
and observes all their deeds.
A king is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a vain hope for victory.”

Or to put it even more bluntly, there is Psalm 2,
“Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
God who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.”

Now, I don’t believe that we can take from these texts,
that God doesn’t care about the nations,
or that we shouldn’t care,
or shouldn’t call the nations to something greater.
But what seems to anger God,
and what we should be concerned about,
are nations who actively undermine the loving, and life-giving,
and righteous and just and compassionate ways of the Lord,
and act instead for their short-term gain and self-interest.

We as God’s people do not need to buy into that ungodly thinking,
just because we live within the boundary lines of a nation that does.
We are not being disloyal or unappreciative or treasonous,
or anything like that,
when we call our nation, and other nations,
to higher standards of morality.

In fact, we’re morally obligated to give witness to God’s higher truth,
when any nation treats human beings as disposable objects,
or takes people created in God’s image,
people who God sees as immeasurably worthy and loved,
and consigns them to some human scrap heap,
because they are inconvenient to our own citizens.
In the same way, we must have the courage to say “no!”
when any nation treats God’s Good Earth with contempt,
sacrificing creation on the altar of short-term economic gain.

No, I’m not saying the calling of every person of faith
is to grab a microphone
and loudly say to world leaders what needs to be said
in the manner of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg before the U.N.

I recognize that in the body of Christ we have callings and gifts
that differ from each other.
We should be grateful for all who offer their gifts . . . actively . . .
for God’s good purposes in this world,
whether out front, or behind the scenes.
And we should be cheering them on, not criticizing them
just because we don’t share their gifts or calling.

But I will say this.
There is one collective action we are indeed called to do . . .
together . . . often . . . as a body of Christ.
And it is an action Christ himself commanded,
and showed us how to do.
And we do it in the face of all the selfish evil
that nations participate in—
war and oppression and economic domination,
and lack of compassion for human suffering,
and woeful inaction on climate change.
It is one of the most powerful protests
against prideful nations and their sinful ways.
This collective action reveals the power of God,
and unmasks the powerlessness of the nations.
This action is called—you might have guessed it—communion.

When the body of Christ communes together at the Lord’s Table,
and especially, on World Communion Sunday,
when the body of Christ scattered across all nations of the world
commune together,
and declare the power of the cross—
declare the redemptive power of suffering,
the healing properties of Jesus broken body and blood,
when God’s people of every tribe and nation and tongue
declare, in unison, that Jesus Christ is Lord,
and we will bow to none other,
all nations are put in their place.
They don’t realize it now, because they’re not paying attention.
But the message of Jesus’ body and blood,
which gathers the disparate faithful from all nations and tribes,
and makes of them one new peoplehood,
one new everlasting kingdom of our God,
this message shames the power of the nations—
as God intended.

So this morning,
as we come to the Table to celebrate our oneness in Jesus Christ,
not only with each other here in this congregation,
but as members of God’s worldwide
holy nation and royal priesthood,
let us do so in humble gratitude
that this is all God’s doing.
It is God’s power at work.
It’s nothing that we can conjure up on our own power.
We just have the privilege of participating in it,
for the glory of God.

So before we begin gathering at the table,
let us sing a song of peace for all the nations . . . see your insert.
This text may be new to us,
but it’s been in some Methodist hymnals since the late 1930s,
and was written in the peacetime
between the two World Wars.
It notes our love and prayers for the peace of our own nation,
while noting that people in other nations
have similar love and prayers for theirs.
And the creation imagery in the second verse
is especially fitting for this worship series.
And appropriately, and a bit ironically,
it’s sung to a patriotic tune, from Finland,
a familiar one to us, called Finlandia.
Let’s sing!

This Is My Song
by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

May truth and freedom come to every nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting every wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.

—Phil Kniss, October 6, 2019

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