This morning’s sermon begins about 25 minutes in. The anthem, with soloist Henry Dyck, can be found about 14 minutes in.
I hope you all had a Happy Thanksgiving! The Thanksgiving table is a place where I experience the kingdom of God.The whole Lentz family was with us….Some of the leftovers are still here.
I am aware that not everyone gets to be with those they love, or eat, or feel good about it – and that is a check to my enthusiasm – the Kingdom of God is close – but not fully here until all are gathered in and fed and loved.
So I have been thinking a lot about the kingdom.
Last Sunday, I bumped into the kingdom of God.
After church there was a person sitting in the pew crying. Another person came up to the pew, sat down, said nothing and took a hand. Something in last week’s service had un-plugged this well of emotion.
Whether the hand-holder knew it or not – this person was witnessing to the ministry of presence – just being there.
It is not about belief, or theology. Presence is the only thing that matters. Where your body is is an essential mark of the Kingdom of God: the power of presence.
I remember the story of a man suffering from deep depression. Many people came to cheer him up. What he remembers is the one who came to massage his feet, saying nothing. He said this silent foot massage did more to heal him than anything else.
Several weeks ago, I preached a sermon describing the marks of the Christian community: radical hospitality, radical generosity and non-violence. All of these things are vitally important, of course, but what was witnessed to me last Sunday in the back pew as one sat silently, holding the hand of the one who was grieving was the MOST important attribute of the kingdom God – radical presence – being in proximity to others, being with those who grieve, those who suffer, those who are imprisoned.
It is the whole point of the incarnation for which we prepare starting next week – first Sunday of Advent: God among us. God present and embodied. Offering life, taking on suffering and death, accepting everyone, creating safe space for traumatized people.
We are a traumatized people. David Brooks in the New York Times wrote a probing piece last Tuesday about how we make safe spaces for our souls, and safe spaces for each other. It is kingdom work!
A thought experiment: where have you seen the kingdom, bumped into the kingdom, seen signs of the kingdom?
For me it is around a table, or at the bed of the dying, or some act of response and presence to a tragedy, or people bending the arc of history towards justice…
We think of kingship and kingdom and kings and of course we think of power and all that comes with it. But for me I think that after 9/11 it was everybody helping everybody: Muslim, Jew, Gay, Straight, Black, White – the kingdom was present – right there.
You would think that a King would have stopped the planes.
In Shaker Heights we saw the out pouring of grief and support for the family, the students and colleagues of Aisha Fraser – who was killed in front of her children by her estranged ex-husband.
You would think that a real King would have stopped that tragedy – but people coming together is a different kind of power. It reveals something else.
Maybe the king is waiting for us to be kingdom people. The king won’t bring the kingdom until we build the kingdom.
Today is Christ the King Sunday – the Sunday before the beginning of Advent. You and I are being invited to consider what do we mean when we call Christ “king.” Or, when we talk about the Kingdom of God and who is a subject of this kingdom?
The Psalm is by David – The one who slayed Goliath and brought together the tribes if Israel into a kingdom that began a 50-year period of ascendency: David and Solomon – mighty in war, wives and concubines, a monarch commanding armies and extending borders, capturing slaves. Even today many believe that the full biblical boundaries of the David-Solomon empire are the true boundaries of Israel. David wants to leave a legacy through his DNA.
We Americans are comfortable with this kind of kingdom even though we are not a monarchy – but wealth, influence, credentials – these are the marks of the successful kingdom of this world.
Full transparency, I like this kingdom. I live in this kingdom. It is in my self-interest to keep this kind of kingdom going – this empire. I benefit from this empire. I have privilege in this empire.
God’s kingdom makes me feel uncomfortable.
In John’s gospel, Jesus stands before Pilate the Roman governor of Judea. Rome – now that is power. The Roman empire extended from Britain to Syria. It was a time of prosperity and peace (the “pax romana”) travel in the Mediterranean basin and throughout Europe was safer than at any time in world history until after World War 1.
Rome has been the model of empire for over two thousand years: England’s colonial Empire, the church’s hierarchy, Hitler’s 3rd Reich – the subjugation of peoples, the accumulation of wealth, but also music, philosophy, architecture.
Jesus in this scene before Pilate, remember, is about to go to his death – he has been abandoned. Strange kind of kingdom and strange kind of king.
Pilate asks: “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Your own nation has handed you over. What have you done?”
Jesus says: “My kingdom is not of this world.” I know that’s right.
Let’s consider that: Christ’s kingdom. What does that look like?
In Christ’s kingdom the poor are rich and the rich are sent away empty. The sinner and the tax collector get places of honor and those with status are left outside looking in. Children are in.Prostitutes and all manner of sinners and outcasts are in… and those who assume that their standing, status and wealth get them the good places at the table are confused.
“Blessed are the poor,” the hungry, those who are persecuted, those who are crying and suffering. You want them in your kingdom?
It reminds me of a time in Winchester when there was a drunk man who stumbled into the balcony. He smelled bad. Someone called the police who came and gently said: “Come on the service is about to start and they don’t want you here.” Indeed we didn’t.
The kingdom of God is shown more in the caravan of Central Americans heading towards our border than it is by the good men and women, following orders, standing at the border trying to keep them out.
It makes me feel uncomfortable. But God’s kingdom witnesses to the flipping of all expectations.
Jesus says: “I came into this world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Jesus’ truth is not an easy truth – but it is an invitation to listen more closely, and to follow more nearly, and to love more dearly – and to put yourself into proximity of the kingdom and its subjects.
The kingdom of God is always expanding, never stationary… there is room for everyone. Perhaps only some are listening at any one time… perhaps only some recognize truth when they see it – but the truth is that grace wins. Love wins. The boundaries are broken down!
This gospel kingdom should agitate you deeply. Stay in the tension as long as you can.
Brennan Manning in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel: Embracing the Unconditional Love of God describes the kingdom of God and its subjects.
Manning was a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian who was also a drunk. He became sober and, as far as I know, has continued to work his sobriety. He remembers being judged and cast out of polite company.
But Manning reminded me: It wasn’t for the righteous that Jesus came. It wasn’t for the well behaved that Jesus died. The radical grace of Jesus was something that re-wrote the rules and re-defined reality. Jesus as King, the Kingdom of God.
Manning quotes the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky to describe this radical kingdom:
At the last judgment Christ will say to us, ‘Come, you also! Come, drunkards! Come, weaklings! Come, children of shame!’ And he will say to us: “Vile beings, you who are in the image of the beast and bear his mark, but come all the same you as well.’ And the wise and the prudent will say, ‘Lord, why do you welcome them? And he will say: ‘If I welcome them, you wise people, if I welcome them, you prudent people, it is because not one of them has ever been judged worthy.” And he will stretch out his arms, and we will fall at his feet, and we will cry out sobbing, and then we will understand all, we will understand the Gospel of grace! Lord, your Kingdom come!
We keep wanting to box God in to our definitions. We want Jesus to be king the way we think a king should be.
But Christ the King shatters all those nice and neat expectations; he flips them.
So, I am thinking about that church member sitting holding the hand of the grieving visitor. I am thinking of the friend massaging feet, saying nothing. I am thinking of the outpouring of love and grief of the Woodbury community. I think of people forgiving and being forgiven. I think of communities being radically hospitable and radically generous, and those who will die for something but not kill for anything. I think of family.
I encourage you to practice the kingdom power of presence: embody it. It may be a relatively small thing, (a mustard seed, really) like welcoming a visitor to today’s service before rushing out.
Or take the big chance – whatever your heart is calling you to do.
Wherever you are located – you can practice this kingdom presence. See where it takes you.
Right here, right now – the kingdom, in all our sullied glory!
Thanks be to God.