Monday, August 13, 2012

August 5 Sermon: "Your Kingdom Come"

Many people have asked for copies of the August 5 sermon on the "Your Kingdom Come" portion of the Lord's Prayer.  Since it did not get recorded, here is the text of the sermon--not exactly as it was preached, of course, but close!

Your Kingdom Come
August 5, 2012
Luke 11:1-4 and various words of Jesus from Gospels

The London Games have been called “the first social media Olympics.”  At the last Olympiad sites such as Facebook and Twitter were beginning to gain widespread use, but they were nowhere near as prominent as they are now.  I am not on Twitter, which involves 140 character or less observations, but I watched the Opening Ceremonies with a friend who is an avid Tweeter, she offered me a constant stream of interpretations of what was happening on the screen before us as tweeted by people around the world.  Some were serious observations, such as “2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony is showing the historical development of London, yet I see no colonization, building of slave ships or racism.”  Other tweets were distinctively American in their speculation about the dramatic retelling of British history:  “How are they going to dramatize us kicking their [tails] in the revolution? #USA #USA #USA.”  During the parade of nations, as North Korea marched in under the name “Democratic People's Republic of Korea,” one person tweeted, “My mother always said "if a country's got democratic in its name, it probably isn't."”   But my favorite social media reflection on the evening was this picture posted on Facebook of the Queen of England sourly surveying the scene, captioned, “Look at all these countries I used to own.”

These observations from around the world of this gathering of many nations and people of the world got me thinking, inevitably, about the nature of the world we live in.  I watched the resilient march of Arab nations that have recently overthrown dictatorial leaders and are struggling through unrest; the proud flag-bearing of nations I’ve never heard of, most of which are still the protected territories of bigger nations—including Britain and, yes, the United States; listened to stories of what nations used to be called before they gained independence, or changed leadership, some of whom even still name themselves by their former relationships, such as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”  And as often happens, my thoughts went to scripture—particularly the scripture we are immersed in during this summer journey through the Lord’s Prayer.  What, I wondered, does it mean for us to pray “Your Kingdom Come” in a world where a kingdom has been so rarely a good thing—when we live in a country where countless lives have been lost for the cause of independence and calling our own shots and rejecting any form of monarchy—where royal leaders become sources of internet jokes and kingdoms seem, to us at least, a quaint thing of the past—nostalgic at best, horribly imperialistic and violent at worst?  Like we talked about with the opening address of “Our Father,” our associations with any sort of kingdom can cause negative reactions—or our unfamiliarity with any sort of kingdom outside of fantasy books and Disney princesses can make us think of a kingdom as something of a child’s imagination rather than a world’s reality.  Kings, queens, sovereigns—why would we ever go back to this, or want any sort of kingdom to come?  And why would this be something Jesus, who certainly knew the horror of kingdoms run amok via King Herod and the Roman empire, taught us to pray?

Well, in Jesus’ day kingdom language was not only integral to the people’s everyday secular world, but had long been used in a meaningful religious sense in Judaism.  The Jewish concept of what one talked about when one talked about God’s Kingdom or, perhaps in a more accurate translation, God’s reign, involved four basic ideas:  that the one God was the creator and sovereign over all; that the rule of the world has been wrongly usurped by forces who oppose this God and to whom we have errantly given allegiance; that God has “given” the kingdom to the chosen people of Israel, who accepted the “yoke of the kingdom” when they embraced the law and covenant at Sinai and made itself a particular community within this world that had subjected itself to God’s revealed will; and that the consummation of God’s kingdom, though beginning now in part, is still future.  The Jews thought their knowledge of the Kingdom of God was pretty clear and complete, and that one day a messianic warrior-king would come to overthrow the kingdoms of this earth and institute the reign of God.

Jesus was raised on these ideas; most of his hearers would have been raised on these ideas, this clear sequence of thought about the kingdom of God.  Yet in his teaching, Jesus effectively debunked and dismantled traditional images of the Kingdom—upended them, rearranged them, and remade them into a collage of crazy paradox.  Jesus spoke of the kingdom a LOT—it appears in all four Gospels multiple times, as you heard in our reading this morning that combined words about the kingdom from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—yet, he never came right out and said what it was.  He never gave a Webster’s dictionary definition.  Rather, he offered metaphors—stories—parables—questions to ask:  “What is the kingdom of God like, and to what may we compare it?” is a phrase he utters again and again.  The images that emerge from this question are abundant:  God’s kingdom is like a tiny seed that’s considered unclean but explodes into a tree that defies explanation, wheat tangled with weeds in a field, a nondiscriminatory fish net hauling in everything it can wrap itself around, fungus that causes bread to rise, a hidden treasure that caused a man to buy the whole field it was nestled within.  God’s kingdom is like a farmer who scatters seed not just where the ground is carefully plowed and prepared but everywhere, a king inviting shady characters to his son’s wedding feast, a gardener who finds things growing he doesn’t even remember planting, a landowner who pays everyone the same wage no matter how many hours they worked, a ruler who departs leaving his servants in charge to hold down the fort.  Depending on which words of Jesus we are reading, this kingdom presently “comes near,” already “has come,” or will “come” in the future, with some seeing it before they die.  Some people are threatened with not being able to “enter” the kingdom, while othersare already “going into” it or even given keys to it.  According to some of Jesus’ teachings people are given signs of the kingdom to look for; yet when asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus cryptically answers them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”—or within you—or within your grasp, depending on how you translate the—surprise, surprise—ambiguous and open to interpretation word that Jesus uses here.

So what are we praying, then, when we pray “your kingdom come”?  How are we living when we live both in the reality of and in anticipation of this already-not yet, here-yet-not-here, within-us-yet-around-us, agricultural, personal, aquatic, economic, political, culinary kingdom?  None of this looks like the images of a kingdom given to us by the Opening Ceremonies, or our history classes, or Orlando's Magic Kingdom.  But I think the unorthodox way Jesus speaks about and teaches us the nature of the kingdom reveals things that can guide and undergird the way we pray and live into this prayer.  First, to pray for the coming kingdom is an act of great imagination.  I think that’s why Jesus gave us so many images—he didn’t want the kingdom to be boxed in, and he didn’t want us to be boxed in in the ways we live and work towards that kingdom.  That’s why I left the picture blank on the front of our worship bulletin today, with space for you to respond with your own words and images—what IS the kingdom of God like?  How do each of us imagine this in our own context?  How do our various images of the kingdom weave together to help us get a bigger, broader picture of God?  How might we be surprised—as Jesus often used surprising images—by the things that can turn out to be hints and glimpses of God’s kingdom, God’s way of organizing the world? 

Second, Jesus speaks about the kingdom in a way that reminds us we are not living out a definition, but a story—the kingdom comes, in all of Jesus’ teaching, in the living out of stories—in everyday acts of gardening and real estate transaction and baking and relating with our families and being surprised by things we didn’t plan for and having our sense of what’s right upended by something unruly.  Perhaps the most influential class I took in college was called “The Kingdom of God in America”—a course I thought would help me clearly define this kingdom thing Jesus spoke about so much.  Most of my college courses in religion had been rather heady, but this turned out to be a class of stories about the Church as it has lived, moved, and responded to the various crises of American culture that have called the Church to action—in particular, the Civil Rights Movement.  This was no study of abstract, barely graspable theology far removed from my own life; it was a look at how actual people in my own time and culture read Scripture and understood God, applying Christian principles to their own lives and using the Church as a vehicle for Christ-centered change.  We learned about Martin Luther King Jr, who moved from craving financial stability, prestige, and denominational fame as a young pastor to being caught up in what he saw as a movement of God in the Civil Rights movement, seeing that his theology had to move, as he put it, from “thin paper to thick action.”  We learned the story of southern farmer Clarence Jordan, whose version of the Lord’s Prayer we will pray together next week, who decided that change in the segregated and economically unjust South would come not through political movements of history but by a God movement breaking in to history and began an interracial farm that, Jordan believed, would allow the Kingdom of God to invade the history of the present-day world.  We learned about countless others who saw the Kingdom of God not as a thing of the past or the future only, but of this present day—a story being written with their lives—and were challenged to consider how our lives might now contribute to that story—a powerful message for a class taught at a public state university founded by the author of the separation of church and state, and one that I think helped lead me into ministry, the more I think about it—that made me want to dedicate my life in a whole-hearted way to being part of this story.

And that leads me to one last thing I think we can learn, beyond how imagination and story are the ways we embody and pray and work towards the coming of the kingdom:  that, unlike the top-down kingdoms of the past, the dictatorships we bristle against and seek to overthrow, this kingdom—in whatever form it takes—requires us to be deeply invested, participatory, and involved.  As John Dominic Crossan put it in his tremendous book on the Lord’s Prayer, “the Prayer’s challenge about God’s kingdom coming is not about the imminence of divine intervention, but about the empowerment of human collaboration.  Here is what counts:  God’s kingdom did not, could not, and will not begin, continue, or conclude without human collaboration…That is why Matthew’s Abba prayer has two even parts with the divine “you” in the first half and the human “we” in the second half. Those two parts are correlatives.  They come together or never come at all.”  Sower and seed and soil, yeast and dough and baker and oven, time and persistence and extravagance and risk—all of these things are part of the great collaboration that, bit by bit, reveals more of what the kingdom of God is like.

And so that picture Jesus painted with his myriad images and invited us to contribute to with our own imaginations and stories just keeps getting bigger and bigger, doesn’t it?  But that’s what praying for the Kingdom to come is about:  not reverting to some failed system or utopia or fantasy of the past.  Rather, as good old Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas put it—I seem to quote them every week in this series, don’t I?—this part of the prayer is a reminder that “the Christian faith is not satisfied with things as they are, now, today.  The Christian faith is not preoccupied with an archaeological exhumation of some distant past by which it attempts to give meaning to an otherwise meaningless present.  The Christian faith is always leaning into the future, standing on tiptoes, eager to see what God is bringing to birth among us.”  We lean our way into West Virginia, tilling kingdom soil, and with Habitat in Brooklyn, planting kingdom trees; we stand on tiptoe, knowing that our little acts of collaboration still have the power to unexpectedly bring about something new.  Can you imagine it—a kingdom growing among us, taking root, being birthed by the stories we live, a story in which every one of us is involved?  What might that kingdom of God look like?  And how can we imagine, narrate, and collaborate our way, bit by bit, right into the midst of us—so that kingdom of God truly is within us, near to us, among us, around us?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good job relaying this concept. Thanks so much.