How to Be a Christian Citizen: What I Told One Congregation for the Fourth of July

Note: I’m repositioning these thoughts here both for card-carrying Christians and for some of my readers who don’t identify with the mission of the Christian Church or perhaps not with any particular faith tradition at all.

     For those of you who think of yourselves both as agnostics and as justice activists, in particular: I hope that this sermon will assure you that at least a few people who seriously identify with the Church (I think that there are many, many more than a few, in the US and around the world!), are speaking directly to the kind of public issues that you care about most deeply.  

     And I surely want to disabuse you of the thought, if you ever have had it, that US Christians are now in the back pocket of Donald Trump. That’s true of some conservative Evangelical congregations, but not of most Christian churches in the US. A case in point, the congregation where I preached this sermon, July 3, 2022, University Lutheran Church, Cambridge, MA. I stand in awe of this congregation.

___________

This is the huge theme I want to explore with you this morning, no surprise on this Fourth of July weekend: “How to be a Christian Citizen.” To this end, I invite you to consider afresh some conventional-sounding words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

Paul’s been dealing with a bunch of controversies that were tearing the Galatian church apart. You can almost hear him sigh, as he tries to pull it altogether at the very end of his letter. “So,” Paul says, with a tonality that might sound like your grandmother’s voice when you went away to college for the first time, “let us not be weary in well-doing.” That’s the most familiar part of my text today.

But forget about your grandmother’s good wishes. Paul has a much more commanding thought. This is the whole text: “So let us not be weary in well doing, for we will reap at harvest time, if we don’t give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

I.

A vignette. For my own vocational reasons, I’ve lately embarked on a personal mission: to interview, thanks to Zoom, some Christians who are at the frontlines of the Church’s mission today, dealing with global ecojustice issues. One of the people I recently spoke with was a young pastor in Nigeria, Habila Shede. He’s enrolled via Zoom in a certificate program in global environmental issues at our Church’s theological seminary in California.

Only three years into his ministry, Pastor Shede’s now dealing with a world of enormous disruption. The forests all around his parish have been devastated by logging and then by severe erosion. Food sources are unreliable. And the struggle, sometimes violent, between Christians and Muslims has been unrelenting.

In that situation, the Apostle Paul’s injunction not to be weary in well doing might be taken to be as clear as the day is long. I mean: support one another, heal the land, make peace with your neighbors. Momentous things like that. The situation there is so bad and so clear, or so it seems to me from a distance, that you can just get on with the Christian life, day by day, without much thought about it.

But what could Paul’s words mean for you and for me, in the rather conventional, even comfortable, situation that you and I find ourselves in today in the good old USA, on the Fourth of July weekend?  I mean, half of New England wants to go to the beach today, right?  That’s what’s on their minds. How can we be Christian citizens, when the challenges that you and I face don’t seem to be nearly so immediate or so pressing as those in places like Nigeria?

II.

Let me get at it this way. And here I have an observation that you might have learned at some point in a Bible class, an observation that first-year theology students typically cherish. In New Testament Greek, there are two words for “time,” chronos and kairos. The first is clock time: chronos, chronology. What year did Columbus “discover” America?  Or as comedian Dick Gregory liked to say: in what year did those people on the shore start waving at Columbus’ three ships?  That’s chronos time – 1492.

Kairos time is something else. Kairos time is when you go out to harvest your lettuce before it bolts. Kairos time is when your baby’s about to be born. Kairos time is when you pass the word that there’s going to be a meeting to figure out how to deal with the likes of Columbus and his kind.

In our Galatians text today, Paul uses the word kairos as a matter of course. First, implicitly, by his reference to – harvest time: “So let us not grow weary in well doing, for we will reap at harvest time…” That’s verse 9 of Galatians, chapter 6. The harvest happens on kairos time. Then there’s verse 10: “So then,” says the flat English translation we have before us, “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” The Greek here is actually kairos, meaning: “whenever the time is right, let’s go for it, for the good of all….” – and so on.

III.

Some questions now.

What kairos is God giving you at this point in your life?  What kairos is God giving us – as Church – right now?  Maybe something about helping with this congregation’s shelter?  Maybe something related to the Supreme Court?  Or, say, climate change?  Perhaps some GBIO initiative or LRC initiative – Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, Lutherans Restoring Creation. Or perhaps something else. Those are the kinds of questions, I propose, that you and I will want to keep asking when we keep thinking about not being weary in well-doing. Where’s the kairos moment?  Is this the right time?

Many years ago, I was given the opportunity – I was given the kairos – to be part of a biracial American church delegation whose assignment was to visit Black Lutheran congregations in South Africa and Namibia. It was at the height of the apartheid crisis. It was a harrowing experience for all of us Americans, especially when we visited the huge Black township, Soweto. Armed trucks of white soldiers were cruising around everywhere. We were told never to take a photo.

I had one afternoon off in Soweto, and I decided to hail a cab and go out to the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches, to check the place out and maybe to meet people. To my surprise, when I arrived, a large and chaotic meeting was just about to begin. People, almost all of them Black South Africans, were milling around all over the place. There was a stirring in the air. I sat in the back, in one of the few seats that were still available. Up front was a panel of ecumenical Black clergy, led by a Lutheran Pastor, Simon Farasani.

Turns out, I had stumbled into a controversial meeting of global significance: when the South African Council of Churches was releasing what it called its Kairos Document. Among other things, that document said: the time has come for all Christians in South Africa to openly resist the minority white government. It was a kairos moment that I’ll never forget.

Has the time arrived – has the kairos arrived – for you and for me to sign on to a new Kairos Document?  Has the kairos come for you and for me to stand up and resist neo-fascist trends in our own society?  To get out into the streets perchance?  As that conservative jurist told the January 6th committee not too long ago, in words like these: “I’m ready to lie down and put my body in front of the traffic.” Some think that the kairos has come for us to do just that. Others think that we may be close to such a kairos moment. What do you think?

While you’re thinking about that – that kind of dramatic kairos moment – keep in mind that the kairos that the Spirit’s offering you at this time of your life might also be mundane, as the world counts such things.

Some years ago, I joined some members of this congregation in a slow march down Mass Ave to the Boston Common to demand climate justice.  No big deal, in a certain sense. But for me it was a kairos moment.

You can fill in the blanks in your own life: Lord knows, maybe when you took what you thought at the time was that modest step for justice, you were in fact and in faith responding to a kairos moment that God was giving you. Even writing a letter or signing a petition or cutting a check. Keep up the good work, dear friends. Keep searching out the signs of these times for such kairos moments.

IV.

Finally now: how can you do it?  How can I do it?  How could Pastor Habila Shede do it and Pastor Simon Farasani?  How could anyone find the spiritual wherewithal to be a Christian citizen in such wrenching times?  Maybe dangerous times, even for us?  This is my answer. You don’t have to go it alone. I don’t have to go it alone. All we need to do is to let ourselves get carried away in the Spirit, by the good news of Jesus, again and again.

Consider another text here, from Mark’s Gospel, chapter 1, about this Liberator – capital L – this Divine-Human Liberator, sent from God at just the right time, the Kairos of every other kairos. This is my translation of Mark’s words: “Jesus came to Galilee…. Saying, ‘The Kairos is fulfilled, and the Reign of God has come near; turn around and believe in the good news.”

In a word: God gives you this gift. God gives me this gift. This cosmic Liberator, Jesus, called the Christ!  All you and I have to do is to claim this gift as our own, and then we’ll find ourselves empowered by the Spirit to respond to every other kairos moment that God gives us. That’s the biblical promise, I believe. The Kairos is fulfilled, and the Reign of God has come near; turn around and believe in the good news!

V.

So you’ve done the right thing today.  You’ve turned around from your ordinary experience. You’ve taken your stand with the Jesus people for this Sunday kairos, either in person or by zooming in. This is the first step of Christian citizenship, I believe: you get with the Kairos, this fulfilled time, the mission of Jesus.

Then, in the Spirit of Jesus, you’ll be ready to respond to any other kairos that God may give you along the way, horrendous or mundane or in between. Any day can be your harvest time, or mine. Any day can be your kairos or mine. Just don’t give up. Keep looking for that kairos. And keep welcoming the support that a household of faith like this one can offer you as you look and as you respond.

One last time, then, hear the Apostle, in a translation now revised for your sake and mine in this, our time of crisis: “So let us not be weary in well doing, for we will reap at harvest time, if we don’t give up. So then, whenever God gives us a kairos, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” That, I believe, is how to be a Christian citizen.