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Month: July 2013

The Kingdom of God—A Stunning Declaration

The Kingdom of God—A Stunning Declaration

Sermon by George Martin
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, June 30, 2013

I need to begin with some sad news—a number of you have already heard about this tragedy that happened, but I know this comes as news to a few of you. This parish is the proud sponsor an amazing boy scout troop. A part of the scouting life involves high adventure experiences and this year some of our scouts went hiking in Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, while 70 from our troop, that included leaders and dads, went on a ten-day canoe journey in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota (up near Canada.) This past week, very tragically, one of the dads died while swimming.

We don’t know all the details. What we do know is that the scouts there, who saw him struggle,  performed as hero’s along with the scout leader and a dad who was physician. They heroically tried to save the life of John Yeh. Our follow-up with this tragedy includes a meeting this Tuesday evening, at the regular meeting here, with all the scouts and parents, along with grief counselors. His funeral is scheduled for 10am on Friday, July 5th at Calvary Church in Pacific Palisades.

I know you all will surround John’s family, our scouts and leaders, with prayer. We cope with this in the context of our faith and with the certainty that God is with us and with John’s family and friends in this time. “For I am convinced,” Paul wrote, “that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

It is that faith that I intended all along to be the focus for this sermon. A faith summed up in the concept that we are already are living inside the Kingdom of God. It is the call of the Holy One to each of us, to belong to God’s kingdom. But I begin with a question.

The poet Langston Hughes once asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Here is a poem in which he pondered that question.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over like syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load?
Or does it explode?

Fifty years ago in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial facing the U.S. Capital, on a hot August day, a man spoke about a dream deferred for way too long. It was an Advent moment in our history as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Only some people couldn’t vote. Actually a lot. That summer, leading into my senior year in college, I wanted to join others on the buses that would leave Toledo Ohio, to join the thousands who heard the call to gather in Washington on that 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s Declaration of Emancipation. I’d like to tell you that I was there, but I was only there in spirit. I never boarded one of those buses.  It was the prejudice of the family to which I belonged constrained me to stay. I’d never quite felt it as I did then, when I said I wanted to go demonstrate for equal rights for all.
I now know that I was the first in my family to challenge an intolerant hate that had been present for generations. I don’t know why, but something deep was calling me  to be part of that other family that would listen to Dr. Martin Luther King. I was on my way of leaving at least part of my families history behind.

What happens to a dream deferred? In my case, it didn’t take too long.  A year and half later, in March of 1965, four of us in my seminary class joined our Old Testament professor on a bus that left from Akron Ohio. It took us to the steps of that capital building in Washington and from there we marched to the Supreme Court singing “We shall overcome.” The question before that Congress was “The Voting Rights Act” . This week the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of that act. Thus the relevance of the question “What happens to a dream deferred?” Now we must ask that again wondering if everyone will be able to freely vote in every state.

The next day, of this past week,  the news from the Supreme Court seemed to explode with surprise. Turning down Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act known has DOMA meant that in at least in 13 states marriage possible is for everyone. Now I know I don’t speak ofr all here. In what follows I’m am speaking for myself. Having personally supported this issue for a long time in my home state of Minnesota I’m pleased that the ruling accords with our statewide vote we had coming to the same conclusion just this past Fall and with the passing of legislation in our state government in May. Next month anyone can be legally married in Minnesota.

The gospel lesson today has echoes of the dream of Jesus, but not of a dream deferred. You see in the mind of Jesus “The Kingdom of God” was already being realized in the world.

The lesson began with the words that he had set his face toward Jerusalem. The meaning of that decision was inside a clue given a few verses earlier in the same chapter, when Jesus, with three of his disciples,  was on a mountain, called in scripture the Mount of Transfiguration. There Jesus was seen in conversation, in some kind of dream sequence maybe, with Moses and Elijah. That was his first time he spoke about going to Jerusalem, phrase usually mistranslated as his “departure.” He hadn’t bought a ticket for a bus ride to Jerusalem. The word there is “Exodus.” As in the first exodus leading to the promised land, and as in the Pascal Mystery leading to resurrection. Not departure, but Exodus!

To be sure there are connections here with the first lesson with Elijah and his disciple Elisha. Elijah was passing on his prophetic voice to Elisha, and Jesus has his disciples, who will remember his voice and his teaching,  even if they happen to fail at understanding what is happening as most of the stages along the way. It was Elijah the prophet who had called down fire from heaven when contesting with the priests of Baal.

And we heard that James and John think that the same kind of fire needs to fall on the people of Samaria, for they had rejected Jesus as he passed through their land on his way to Jerusalem. We’re told that Jesus rebuked  James and John at that point. As you’ll hear in two weeks he’ll offer a stunning parable that would have caused James and John to have what I call “theological whiplash,” — for in that parable the hero is a Samaritan.

What I really want us to pay attention to, however, from the Gospel today are the three would-be disciples who fail to understand what it really means to follow Jesus. Their failure to perceive what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Cost of Discipleship is what gives me the occasion to preach about the stunning declaration that we make about desiring to live in God’s kingdom.

The three compact stories of would-be disciples are extremely are hard to comprehend. One would follow, and to this one Jesus says “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Animals have places of safety, but Jesus is homeless. And therein lies the theme of these three little parabolic stories that cause us to wonder “What does it mean to follow this Jesus?”

The second story is of a man who says he wishes to go home to bury his father first. Jesus offers an enigmatic comment about letting the dead bury the dead. It almost seems as if Jesus is heartless, but I have it on good authority that in the Middle Eastern world of Jesus that man was saying, “My father is still alive. Only after he has died will I be free to follow you. And I would do so then.” Sounds to me somewhat like my family that sternly forbade me to take that bus to Washington DC in 1963. Hoping I’d never do anything like that as long as they were alive. But they were went I went to march in Washington.

Lastly, within the same theme, is the one who wants to say goodbye to those at home. That all sounds like the right thing to do, but Jesus seems to have something quite radical in mind, and it is to that which we must attend.

I hope at this point that I’m not going to get in trouble with too many of you with what I’m reminding us about is that phrase “The kingdom of God.” We hear it so often, but do we stop to consider what it really means?  For most of my Christian life is was just a phrase , some  words found in places like the Lord’s Prayer and in the Nicene Creed. But then I read two books by John Yoder. He’s a Mennonite theologian who wrote The Politics of Jesus and The Priestly Kingdom. Read them at your own risk!

As you might have already surmised from this close examination of Jesus and his would-be followers, the call of Jesus wasn’t to be compromised with other demands. A close reading of all four gospels will reveal that over and over Jesus uses the phrase Kingdom of God. Sometimes its in the Jewish idiom as a kind of name for God, without using God’s name. Many times it’s a vision of a way of life that is meant to define his followers. On some occasions it is what will come some day, but generally it is  assumed to be a present reality that is to be perceived and discerned by the disciples, even the would-be disciples.

So here we are. Maybe some just walking in the door for the first time. Other’s here for a long time. Already happened this morning we have already declared that it is to God’s kingdom that we belong! What an amazing thing we do Sunday after Sunday. The celebrant begins the liturgy saying….now get ready for response…. The celebrant begins the liturgy saying, “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And we respond, “Blessed be God’s kingdom, now and forever.”

Hmm. Membership in God’s kingdom? Hmm. What does that mean? One scholar says it means we declare that it means that in our baptism we have been made part of God’s “…counter history, counter kingdom, counter community.” (Hauerwas, In Good Company 168).  I don’t want to scare you, but there a political element in this, as in the Greek word “polis” and all the reflections on what makes for community life. All those philosophical reflections about what’s the best way for people to live together and to make decisions together. It’s political if you say who belongs and who doesn’t belong.

Jesus wasn’t a threat because he was a teacher. He was forming a community when he says to would-be disciples come and follow me. It was just a community that didn’t look like the families they knew. I know it wasn’t the family that I knew.

The kingdom of God vision shaped a rag-tag group of disciples grounded in parables of reversals. To the chief priests of his time Jesus said, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom before you.” At another place, “Whoever would save his life, will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.”

I’ll not make sense of these parables. I do know they don’t make any sense in that world that we’ve come from to be here this morning. I also know that what this is about isn’t what any of us can know—at least know as know facts and can explain how things work.

You have happened to come inside a community that prays, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,”….(Finish the phrase with me)…on earth as it is in heaven. Yes, that’s the prayer he taught us. And we’re the earthly ones right now.  I’m convinced that what matters isn’t what we know intellectually, but how we sing this strange song, one known to the angels as well, that this is an alternative community to which we belong.

To freedom we were called, St. Paul said. But it was freedom for service and witness inside the story of Jesus. It’s a paradox. We are called to serve one another and it means no one is better than anyone else inside this story of God. The only thing that matters is that you are willing to participate and grow into faithfulness.

What we have is a set of practices and stories. It’s a family. No weapons allowed, by the way. We share….no one gets more or less at this table, at this meal. Giving? It can be hard at first, for in that world from which we come, you buy things, and you expect to get something with your money. Here we offer an message that the exchange took place in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus—that’s what matters. It’s a free gift. Just come and you belong to this community. And then you receive the bread and the wine. You welcome the stranger. You serve the homeless and give to the poor. You minister to and honor children. And yes you give money and make sacrifices, losing sight of what it actually costs, because…well because that’s who we become inside this story. And it originates in the learning of a little prayer that begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy name.” And the next phrase is, please say it with me, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” There’s more to this prayer, but I hope you can say “Amen” to the idea that belonging to God’s Kingdom is as good as it gets.

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