Here we Have no Continuing City.
Have you been watching a lot of politics, i.e. American election politics? Me too. And I think it’s making me feel sick at heart: and tired, dog-tired . . . And not unlike Bilbo Baggins the unwitting bearer of the Ring of Sauron I feel thin and stretched; “scraped,” even, like “butter scraped across too much bread.”
You too? I thought so!!!
In fact after weeks of this I don’t know how to think or feel anymore, vis-à-vis civic life, or the body politic. I’m tempted to give up on government. And politicians. And society. And people. To be honest, it’s the hacking, and the cruelty, not to mention the wickedly self-righteous (and self-serving) attitude of “mutually assured demonization,” that politicians often affect––each, of the other, in this case the “demonic” other––that I find the most discouraging: liberals of conservatives, conservatives of liberals, Republicans of Democrats, Democrats of Republicans. And so on, and so on. Sigh. It just seems to go on and on and on and on, especially at election time.
As parties vie for the approbation of the Electorate it’s like the bitter hatred which can grow up between two women vying for the affection of the same man; or two men, the same woman; “each jealous of the other, as the stung are of the adder,” as Shakespeare describes sisters
Regan and Goneril in The Tragedy of King Lear, each vying for the love of the same man, and a very wicked man at that; one sister still married, the other suddenly, and rather conveniently, widowed.
And yes, while one should never give up on public life, I am beginning to feel like it:––and I am not by nature a cynical, or an ironical, person. (In my opinion cynicism, and/or an overripe sense of irony, is straight out of what Hunter S. Thompson might fancifully call the “Slacker’s Bible.”
It’s simply the easy way out taken by people who are too lazy, spiritually speaking, to be committed––or self-sacrificial––about anything.)
In 2017 a journal of the Public Library of Science out of San Francisco California published the results of a survey it had conducted about how people perceive––and experience––the political process. Among its findings?
- 31.8% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that exposure to media promoting views contrary to their own, “drove them crazy.”
- 29.3% said they lost their temper as a result of politics.
- 21.4% said politics fatigued them.
- 18.3% lost sleep due to politics.
- 4.1% said politics caused them to become suicidal.
And I suspect that each of these figures is, to be honest, a drastic underestimate.
“Politics,” wrote 19th century journalist and poet Ambrose Bierce, is a strife . . . “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles; the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” In other words, politics is a war; and not only a war, but a war––Bierce argued––entirely without principle!
No wonder another survey, part of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study published in 2010, found that a surprising number of people––whether liberal or conservative––admitted that, I quote, “winning was more important than what the victory would actually mean for society.”
Or, and I quote again, “their parties should use any tactics necessary to ‘win elections.’”
And if there’s anything which is true about politics, and about war, it is, that there are winners, and there are losers . . . Do you remember the opening narration of the television program ABC’s Wide World of Sports, as intoned by the late sportscaster Jim McKay, on the air from 1961 to 1998?
“Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport… the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition… This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports!”
“The agony of defeat.” It can change your life, in the worst of ways, not to mention the life of a nation. And we see this being played out right now, in post-election America.
Ever felt so defeated that you can barely move, like Charlie Brown? Charlie Brown, whom no one sends Christmas cards; Charlie Brown, suckered by Lucy into running to kick the football, only to have it snatched away at the last moment? Charlie Brown, ever pining for the little red-haired girl, who never seems to return his affections?
What does one do with loss, or defeat, or even decimation? Will it lead to bitterness, and/or deep disillusion? Will it inspire a terrifying spirit of vengeance, or will it give rise to something altogether different? That is the question. In fact it’s one of those “life questions” a lot of us have trouble answering.
In the 2004 Summer Olympics, held in Athens, an altogether bizarre event took place. The Brazilian long distance runner Vanderlei de Lima was competing in the Marathon. No Brazilian had ever won this race before, and as gifted as he was at the time, Vanderlei felt he had a shot at it. Moreover, this particular marathon was––in a word––special. Marathoners would be retracing the 2,500-year-old route taken by Phi-di-pedes, the original marathoner. At the 22-mile (or 35 km) mark Vanderlei was leading comfortably, when suddenly, as it were out of nowhere, an eccentric Irish priest by the name of Neil Horan––of all people––bedecked in a red, white, and green kilt, bolted out of the spectating crowd and tackled Vanderlei to the ground. (You would think I was making this up, but I’m not!)
Horan as it turns out had had a history of disruting sporting events for reasons of his own.
In fact, when asked why he had done this terrible thing, Horan said, “I wasn’t doing it as a prank, I was doing it to spread the gospel, and to prepare people for the second coming.” Yes, truth is stranger than fiction.
Well, needless to say chaos ensued, and Vanderlei lost about 10 seconds: enough time for two other runners to speed past him to win gold, and silver. Vanderlei did finish; winning, instead, the bronze medal. Outraged, the Brazilian Athletic Confederation launched an appeal. “Someone took him out of the race,” argued the Confederation, and we are asking for a gold medal for our athlete... solutions like that have been done in the past for other events.” The appeal, however, was rejected.
This is how Vanderlei responded to the whole affair. “I’m not going to cry forever about the incident. Although it broke my concentration, I managed to finish; and the bronze medal––in such a difficult marathon––is also a great achievement . . . I’m happy with it; it’s bronze, but means gold.”
In December of that year, the International Olympics Committee awarded Vanderlei the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship. In 2016, Vanderlei was also given the honour of lighting the Olympic Torch for the Summer Games in Rio di Janeiro.
Interestingly, the word “politics” is derived from the Greek word poliV (polis). It’s one of the first words we learned in our study of New Testament Greek at seminary. And what does poliV mean? “City.” It’s a word that turned up in one of our Scripture readings this morning.
“For here, that is on earth,” reads Hebrews 13, “we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”
Aristotle called the city “a common life for a noble end.” It was in the Greek city-state, or poliV, that the city reached its first––and some people feel greatest––peak: a devout association of patriarchal clans that became a self-governing community of citizens, whose laws constituted a moral and spiritual order duly symbolized in its magnificent buildings and public assemblies; in its marketplaces and places of commerce; in its glorious temples, on the steps of which men
––though never women––gathered to talk philosophy.
The first mention of city in the Bible, of course, is from Genesis 11. And it’s not a very flattering one. “Come,” said the enterprising, in the morning of the world, “let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
There is a sense in Genesis that the earliest builders of cities––whoever they were––built their edifices as an escape from, or substitute for, God. And having turned away from God, they needed somewhere to go, for safety, and security, and a sense of meaning. And the city––either literally, or proverbially––provided just that. Then, as now, you could lose yourself in the city, and if necessary, hide from God. You no longer had to think things through:––you could simply escape and become anonymous, and/or distract yourselves with a 1,001 glittering preoccupations.
But the writer of Hebrews makes bold to say that here, on this earth; here, in the so-called “here and now;” we have no city; that is to say, no continuing, nor enduring city. The cities in which we live, or the cities that we visit, or revere, or memorialize . . .they are passing way, not unlike, in the words of Native American poets, “dust in the wind.”
Instead, we are to look to the City which is to Come. The heavenly City, where God has his throne––what the great 4th century theologian Augustine of Hippo called the “City of God.”
That’s where our citizenship truly lies! In fact, that’s the name of one of most famous books ever written, The City of God, by the selfsame Augustine.
Like the writer of Hebrews, Augustine describes history, even salvation history, as a contest of sorts: a contest between the Earthly City, and the City of God. A false dichotomy? I think not.
For citizens of the earthly city have as their concern what Jesus called the “cares of this world.”
But citizens of God’s city, however, look up. Their hearts are set upon the Heavenly City, even the Kingdom of God.
Does mean that we are called to social disengagement? To eschew politics? To become slackers and cynics? To give up on anything that might heal the harms of the present world?? To replace meaningful dialogue and social engagement with whining and griping and the planning of vengeance? No, a thousand times no. Ironically, we are citizens of earth, and heaven, at one and the same time; the now-and-not-yet Kingdom of God.
But what it does mean, or suggest, (I believe) is that we need to hold this present life, “lightly.”
Lightly. After all, this present life is NOT, nor should ever be, the “be-all and end-all,” of existence. It’s not. (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”)
And if we hold this present life but “lightly,” and instead look to God, grappling him to our very souls, as it were “tightly,” then we will be able to handle losses, and defeats, and disappointments. And we will also be able to figure out how to engage the world for good––and for God. That crazy Irish priest thought he was “engaging the world for good” when he rushed out onto the racecourse and tackled Vanderlei Lima at the Olympics. But I suspect the only things to which he was holding on tightly, were his own delusions . . .
Figuring out what to hold lightly, and what to hold tightly. There’s a definition of keeping in step with the Spirit if there ever were one!!!!!
Remember Holly Golightly from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s? If you ever read that book you will discover that she is a strange and enigmatic figure, even in fictional terms, but one cannot help but like her name!! We too, are to go lightly about this world; for here, we have no continuing city.
These are the terms with which Jesus first framed ministry, for the disciples.
“Calling the Twelve to him,” Mark tells us, “he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits. These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.”
In other words, “travel light, boys . . .” “Travel light, in this world, and get ready for ministry.”
“They went out and preached that people should repent,” Mark tells us. “They also drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil, and healed them.”
Travelling lightly. Holding on, lightly. It’s one of the great secrets of the Christian life. As the late great Christian rocker Larry Norman once put it, “Don’t mind me. I’m only visiting this planet.”
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart,” said Job. And as for rest, for the Christian, it’s trust, and faith, and ministry––holding on not lightly, but tightly to God!!!–– so that the cares of this world, and its many distractions: the exigencies of politics; the hurts, and the harms; the losing and the agony; will give way to––and be supplanted by––a sense that God is in charge!!! For you are really a citizen not of this world, but of the world to come.