Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent 2, Candle of Peace

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Advent 1, Candle of Hope

Monday, August 22, 2016

Created for Good, Revisited

A Sermon Given to Haven Fellowship Church
By Stephanie Little Coyne
July 31, 2016

In the beginning, God created:
“Let there be light and darkness.
Let there be waters and earth and skies.
Let there be green plants and fruits, trees and vegetation.
Let there be fish and birds and creeping creatures and wild animals.”
And God paused.
“Let there be humans—male and female.
Take care of the waters and the earth and the skies!
Take care of the green plants and fruits, the trees and vegetation.
Take care of the fish and birds and the creeping creatures and wild animals.
Take care of all these things and enjoy them; delight in them as I delight in you!
Take care of each other.”

And it happened, just as God said. And God believed it all to be beautiful and good.

Part I:
We are God’s children and God’s call to us starts in the story of creation.
In the very beginning, God crafted and composed this Earth and everything in it. And everything that is on this Earth has the opportunity for renewal.
From the very beginning, God gave humans the opportunity to be caretakers—an opportunity that is both a gift and a charge. God gave humans plants, but God also gave humans seeds—seeds that need to be planted and tended to.
Such as humans are caretakers of Earth, WE are also caretakers for each other. And not only are we caretakers for Earth and for each other, we are UNIQUELY gifted caretakers; each of us has a role to act out and a talent to perform.
God, whom we believe to still be present in this world, still creates, and God still gifts us with chances to cultivate.
We watch as others grow, we teach, we pass on. We cheer on and we share. We are taught and we hold each other’s hands.
It’s a beautiful picture of things that are and of possibilities that may be. And pieces of that picture were drawn long ago, introduced into our beings long before we were.
God is Love and God is Grace. And we were made in the image of God, therefore, we too have the components of love and grace within us.

We have been created for good.

Part II:
For me, Ephesians 2:10 ties this Sunday morning together. This verse reminds us of the creation of our very selves and it reminds us that there is a Holy portion within us, as we heard from Genesis.
It reminds us that we are not created to sit around and look pretty—pretty as we are—and we have been told this morning of many, many ways that we can share and do good works in this church and in the community. These words in Ephesians are an encouragement for us to do—to share, to forgive, to welcome.
You know that book of the Bible that we have no chance of knowing by heart?—Leviticus—the book of instruction and procedure and law…after law…after law. Love was written into that law and Jesus reminds us of that fact just like he reminds that sassy lawyer—there, in Leviticus chapter 19, verse 18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And again, in verse 34, “you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” 
As we keep reading in the Old Testament, we are reminded to choose compassion. In the book of Hosea, of which we read just a portion of the passage earlier in the service…The whole of chapter 11 tears at your heart—its words are filled with emotion that speaks to that of an adult who is trying his or her best to teach and raise a child. Yet, the child, or in the passage of Hosea, the Israelites, keep complaining, they keep disobeying, they keep showing that they are an ungrateful people:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.”
And then, instead of an outburst of anger, we hear these words from God, the father:
“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
Instead of showing Israel Divine anger, God chooses Divine compassion.
God has taught us to be compassionate; even in situations where our judgements and perceptions may be correct and even though an outburst of anger might be well-warranted.
The Coyne family is very partial to the animated Disney movie, The Jungle Book. Rather, we are partial to the soundtrack of The Jungle Book and that is mainly because the CD was stuck in our car’s CD player for 3 years. We just sold that car; we hope that another family is enjoying it as much as we did.
As with most Disney movies, the book The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling is slightly different than the animated illustration. Baloo the bear is much more fun-loving and carefree in the movie than he is in the book. And Baloo, who has a rather rough hand with Mowgli, makes sure that Mowgli knows the varying languages of the different animals in the jungle so that if he encounters any of them, he will know their language and will know how to speak to them in a proper manner…so that he can speak and be understood, so that he can listen and understand.
And on more than one occasion, Mowgli is able to get out of trouble because he is able to adapt linguistically in a situation.
Again, in the Old Testament, God sends the prophet Ezekiel to a group of the exiled Israelites and says to him, “sit there, by the river, among the people. Sit there and watch. Learn who they are. Hear their language.”
Before God tells Ezekiel to say a word, God tells him to sit among them and be quiet. And for seven days, Ezekiel sat, “stunned.”
God has shown us how to be voices of Truth.
Oh, God has His share of loud entrances—but this is not one of them. Ezekiel is sent to an exiled people—a people with no home—and instead of a grand announcement of the arrival of a prophet, God tells Ezekiel to go live with these people for a while—“see what life is like as an exile before I give you the message to give to them.”
This is another act of compassion from God—this method of message delivery is the most compassionate and the most loving method. God made sure that the Israelites would hear from Him in a language that they could understand. It was up to them to listen and to act.
God has made sure that we can hear the Message in ways that we can understand through the life and ministry and teachings of Jesus—sent as a man to live and walk among humans. It is up to us to listen and to act.
We know that life is a gift.
We know that God is love.
And we know, especially when we look to Jesus, that we are called into a Christian Mission.
The rich man in Luke, chapter 12, doesn’t get it—What of your wealth and abundance, rich man? What does the storage of your goods say about your life—does it say that God is of your utmost concern or does it say that you have faith only when you HAVE? On this very day, your life is being demanded of you!
The lawyer doesn’t get it—“Love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
The Righteous in Matthew 25 don’t get it—“Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Even the disciples didn’t always get it—“Let the little children come to me; and he took them up in his arms and blessed them.”
Do we, Haven Fellowship, do we get it?—“Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”
Consider the exiles and the aliens—consider them and love them because You were once exiled, You were once the alien.
Consider the outcast and the lonely—consider them and love them because You were once an outcast, You were once the lonely.
Consider the widow and the orphan—consider them and love them because You were once or will be the widow, You were once or will be the orphan.
Consider the child and the elder—consider them and love them because You were once the child, and You will be the elder.
We are not this or that, us or them. We are children of God and we have been given chance and chance again to be renewed, or re-planted. Through our caretaking of others, in our partnership with God as we move forward on this Christian mission, we are able to tell others about that vehicle by which they too can find renewal. We are able to speak to them about of the love and grace of Jesus Christ, because we ourselves have seen this creation as a miraculous thing.
Darrin, one of our many bright and perceptive children here at Haven, pointed out something to me last Wednesday. We were completing sheets that, when filled in, read as verses from Genesis 1, “On this day in this month in this year, God made Mary Beth. God put graciousness and love in his/her heart.”
And then, the next line was, “She/He was ___________.” I intended the line to read something like, “He was good,” as God declared the rest of creation to be. But Darrin pointed out to me that the language I used was the past tense and he made the very appropriate case that we are, and all that we are, are in the present. We are good, from our first moment to this very present moment.
Darrin gets it. Darrin, with his thought, learned the lesson and point from our whole summer—We are who God has made us right now, right in this very minute.
God has declared us good. And God has created us for good. Amen.

Pastoral Prayer
We are grateful, dear Lord, that you have given us this gift of prayer. That even in your design of all of creation, you have written in a way for and given us the space to converse with you, to offer to you the things which we carry around with us—the things which lighten our feet as well as the things which weigh us down.
And we are grateful for this church who values prayer enough that her individuals offer the names of people whom most of us will never know—the daughters of daughters and the sons of sons—we are grateful because despite our human limitations, they offer those names to you because they believe that you are unlimited; they believe in your power and they believe that you care.
And of those names, we offer those who are in our church community: Be with our pastor and his wife as they travel and be with other members of our church who are traveling as well, enjoying these last few days of summer vacation. 
Be with those individuals whose names we know who are ailing--________________ _______________________________________________________-- and we pray that you erase infection and pain and restore them to health.
We offer you the known and unknown names of those families whose houses and lives have been destroyed by fire and flood, across this nation and throughout the world. We pray that you will comfort them and help them establish new foundations.
We offer you the known and unknown names of those families whose lives are affected daily by war and violence. We pray that you intercede with great and everlasting peace in those places.
And finally, we offer to you, oh God who is all-knowing, those prayer requests which are too personal or too scary to vocally name. Dear Lord, we know that you hear even those prayers that we cannot voice out-loud.

Be with us through this day and into this week. We are your beloved children. Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Prayer for the School Year

Almighty God,
At the beginning of this new school year, we pray for the new students and the seasoned students, for the shy students and the lively students, for the academically-minded students and the experiential students, for the beloved students and the isolated students. 

We pray for
    their minds to be clear
    their bodies to be safe
    their senses to be stirred
    their bellies to be full
    their spirits to be encouraged
and for their whole selves to find loving people with whom and
places in which to share both their worries and their gifts.

We pray for the students who are chronically ill; oh Lord, send to them your Spirit who heals and comforts.
We pray too for the educators who will lead our students through this next year.  May you give them patience, resources, and recognition.  We are thankful for our teachers and for the passion in which they approach each lesson.  We are thankful that they generously share their knowledge.

We are grateful for our school buildings, for the opportunity to be educated, for the provisions you give us in supplies and transportation.  Push us to return to the world the knowledge that we acquire—let us give of our minds so that more opportunities are available to those who cannot freely learn.  Let us share the gifts of language, of math, of arts and science, of reading and illustration and music.

Let us also share the gifts given to us through the teaching of Christ Jesus.  Let us extend a hand in service to others.  Let us pray as intercessors and as children, praying as Christ taught us to pray...Amen.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Created for Good

A Sermon Given to St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church
By Stephanie Little Coyne
August 9, 2015

   For several weeks this summer, I traveled just a few blocks down the Avenue to St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church, where I taught youth groups participating in Camp RHINO, a ministry of St. Charles Pres that is involved in restoration efforts throughout the city.
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings, we ate a little, played a little, sang a little, and discussed topics lured from Genesis, chapter 1.
   The youth groups traveled from all over the U.S.—Texas, Colorado, Indiana, Oregon, and Alabama, and I looked forward each night to meeting them and hearing from them.  I am appreciative of the opportunity to share some of our lessons with you this morning in what I am deeming a “teaching sermon.”
   To Genesis, chapter 1: (a paraphrase)
          In the beginning, God created:
“Let there be light and darkness.  Let there be waters and earth and skies.  Let there be green plants and fruits, trees and vegetation.  Let there be fish and birds and creeping creatures and wild animals.”
And God paused.
“Let there be humans—male and female.  Take care of the waters and the earth and the skies!  Take care of the green plants and fruits, the trees and vegetation.  Take care of the fish and birds and the creeping creatures and wild animals.  Take care of all these things and enjoy them, delight in them as I delight in you!  Take care of each other.”
And it happened, just as God said it would happen.  And God believed it all to be beautiful and good.
Lesson 1
   Out of nothing, God created; this was the beginning of everything.  I usually think about there being absolutely nothing right before I try to go to sleep at night.  Perhaps you have an active night-mind too—when “nowhere” conversations begin.  What was the beginning?  What will be the end?  It is those kinds of conversations that bring on feelings of nausea well before they bring on thoughts of sleep.
   Just as I do not understand the “beginning” or the “end,” it is likewise hard for me to understand a God who is everywhere, in control of everything, who knows everything and who is in everything.  But, I do believe that the God in whom I put my trust is, above all else, a God of love.  And I believe that out of that great love, God created.  Somehow, in some amount of time, God put thought and energy and affection into the creation of the heights and the depths.
   Rabbi Arthur Waskow, born in 1933, is the founder and director of The Shalom Center and a public advocate for peace and equality.  He is the author of the poem, “On Deciding Whether To...”.  The first part of this poem:[1]
B’reshit/in the beginning
God was lonely, suffering
though everything in the universe was held within.
Unfulfilled, overpowered by chesed-(benevolent) energy
God breathed out, kissed out, sent it all out,
Every possibility that ever was and would be.
I imagine God was frightened.
What a terribly momentous step,
even with overflowing love as catalyst and reference point.
What if something went wrong
if the universe made its own choices at breakneck speed
if there was no breathing any of it back in again.
Once it began, this process more powerful than its Creator
with beginning middle end all at once, all possible—
how could there not have been Divine panic?
So in the split second eon after that first out breath kiss
a proclamation “Let there be light!” and there was
a moment when sight would be unhampered
a snapshot flash of eternity in which to see
before darkness was once again welcomed
the realm of comfort from all the see-ing.

   This poem offers to us the idea that God took a chance—that God could not be sure whether or not this creation-thing would work.  So in this, God’s Great Chance, Creation was full of possibilities.  With each day, with each step into its development, God declared that It was good.
   In short, God was full of an energy that was love, God therefore created something to love, but God did not create a world that was a stuffed teddy bear—incapable of thought or process.  God created a world and let that good world flourish in possibility.
   What would God say of this world today?
   When we curiously rake our fingers through sandy beaches or dig through tough Georgia clay, when we marvel at the long-necks, the short-beaks, the softly furred, and the quick-footed, when we wade in shallow tides or sail on steady currents do we find that we are still enchanted with nature?  In such an enchanted state—in awesome wonder—is there not some element of joy?  Surely God delights in our enjoyment!  Even amid over-use and injury, misinterpreted dominion, and casual interpretation, this world still exists as God’s rolling creation and It is still good.
Lesson 2
Genesis 1:26-28:  Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  And God blessed them.
   In the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible, life is given to humanity.  But humans are not created as the skies, the waters, or other creatures; humans are not created out of nothing.  There is a pre-beginning; humans are created in the likeness or image of God.
This congregation has talked before about the imago dei that is in us, but we, like many or most congregations, do not talk too much about the image we have of ourselves—our body image, our self-image, our self-esteem.
   As a 20-something-year-old seminary student, I sat in Dr. John Claypool’s class, “Preaching Genesis,” and something in the way he taught these few verses to the class struck me.  Something about being made in God’s image struck the girl whose friends and family members struggled with addiction and anorexia; something struck the girl who herself struggled with depression and body image.
   We are, I am, made in God’s image.  What of that fact?
   Catherine of Siena, a Catholic mystic born in 1347, was an advocate for the poor and sick, a mediator of the Great Western Schism in the Catholic church, a public advocate for unity, and an author of many letters wrote these words:[2]
What is it
You want to change?
Your hair, your face, your body?
For God is
in love with all those things
and might weep
when they are
   A woman in the year 1347 thought and wrote down words that are amazingly poignant for us in the year 2015.  The idea that God weeps when I am dismayed about my appearance makes me pause.
   I put thought into you, my child.  From my own being, I created you.  I know every hair on your head.  Why are you trying to present yourself as another?  You are unique and with purpose, you are you, just as I intended for you to be.
   I gave the youth groups this summer several questions to ask themselves as they sat in small groups of their closest friends.  I asked them to consider their overall body and self-image, to talk about what they would change, to “call-out” the people that wanted them to change their appearances.  To my delight, they talked to each other.  They listened to each other.  I watched their faces as their minds wrestled with thought.  I heard them name negative sources in their lives, including parents, coaches, friends, and various media sources. 
   Even in the midst of more positive ad campaigns, there is still an enormous amount of pressure on all of us to conform and to change.  With the youth, as is probably true with all of us, they reported more often than not, that they were worst enemy, their biggest critic.
As we assembled back into the larger group, I asked for the students to call out ways in which they thought God was proud of them.  One or two might answer, but for the most part, I was met with silence. 
   I changed my question to, “of your friends here, who is God proud of and why,” and answers came quickly and freely.  This generation who we often label as “entitled” and “self-absorbed” could not publically profess positive statements about themselves, but they were able to identify positive traits and skills of their friends openly. 
How is God proud of you?  Are you able to answer that question?  Can you answer it on behalf of others?  Why do we struggle with naming the good in ourselves?
   Let’s return to more of the Rabbi’s poem:
So, too, in the beginning
the universe breathed its kiss into me
and with that kiss, possibilities
thousands of them
limited only by the chance of time and place.

I can only comfort myself with the thought
that even God didn’t know if the plan would work,
but moved forward into the darkness on faith.

   Just as with the rest of creation, so too are we blessed with possibility and in the possibility, we have opportunity for growth, to be healthier, to let our souls shine through our outward appearance—to be created anew.  And as we mediate the dialogical battle in our minds, we can be assured that there is newness and possibility in each day.  Just as the chrysalis, we are in process. 
   God has seen you and you are good.
Lesson 3
   We’ve talked about our relationship to creation, the relationship we have with ourselves, but what of our relationship with other people? 
   Who are the isolated people in your lives?  Who are the lonely, the different, the bullied?  Are we able to see the image of God in those who are so very different from us?
   A life-long mediator, I hold fast to the goal of two people finding common ground in order to establish or re-establish relationship, but surely the greater feat is supping with someone with whom common ground is only the size of a pebble. 
   We know that Jesus taught us to love one another and to love our neighbor, but he specifically taught us to love people who are different than us. 
   Clarence Jordan, born in 1912, Greek and New Testament Scholar, founder of Koinonia Farm, and public advocate for civil and economic rights for all, translates in his Cotton Patch version of Matthew and Luke, “Listen here, if you love only those who love you, what’s your advantage?  Don’t even scalawags do that much?” (Matthew 5:46) “You all, love your enemies, and be kind, and lend, expecting nothing.  And you’ll get plenty of ‘pay’; you’ll be the spittin’ image of the Almighty, who himself is friendly towards the unlovely and the mean.
   As we journey on the road towards love, there is often a corresponding path that leads to advocacy—a designation that comes when we pour our lives into another, when we plea on behalf of another.  I’ve mentioned three advocates in these lessons: Rabbi Waskow, Catherine of Siena, and Clarence Jordan.  All bravely spoke up for those whose voices could not speak loudly enough on their own.  James Dunn, who passed away last month, was former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee and who was another advocate for the public is quoted as saying, “Churches faithful to the Gospel cannot remain silent in the face of injustice.  Silence is sin.”[3]
   There are those among us who are bullied.  If you imagine a person’s life to be one of misery because of his or her interactions with others, or if you would hate to trade places with that person because you would hate to feel what they feel and carry what they carry, then know that that person needs an advocate and perhaps needs you to be their advocate. 
At school, at parties, at church, and at home, kids have always been vulnerable to bullies.  But there is a new element of invasion in town—the internet gives bullies access to the wounded 24 hours a day.  Kids are not alone in absorbing this invasion into their lives—we are all exposed—but it is up to all of us to create safe spaces and be active listeners and responders.
   To deny that bullying occurs is both naïve and dishonest.  Every week this summer, I asked the youth to think of those kids around them who were isolated or bullied and to take the first step towards being their advocate by calling out those individual’s initials.  Week after week, I filled up page after page of letters, scanning back and forth through the alphabet many times over.
   Students, as you begin this school year, know these things: It is never okay for you to cause someone else to be miserable and sad.  It is never okay for you to put your hands on someone else in a harmful way.  It is never okay for you to tell someone else that their life is worth nothing. 
   And.  It is never okay for someone to make you miserable and sad.  It is never okay for someone to put their hands on you in a harmful way.  It is never okay for someone to tell you that your life is worth nothing.
   We are all created in the image of God and we are all good.

   There’s a circle on your page...for the doodlers among us...
   We see circle illustrations across differing cultures of religions, time, and thought.  Labyrinths, dream catchers, micro-worlds—circles are everywhere.  Circle pictures hold possibilities; circles have no definition of beginning or end.  Circles group things into relationship and there is relationship between us and each other and the world. 
   In one of the last weeks of camp, a group traveled into New Orleans from Birmingham, Alabama.  I noticed the church name immediately—St. Luke’s Episcopal, the last church where Dr. Claypool served as rector before coming to Atlanta to teach at McAfee, School of Theology.  John Claypool, public advocate for race reconciliation and voice for the mourner who somehow elevated Genesis 1 into more than beautiful mythology...his beautiful soul was present in my picture this summer.

Let us pray.
   Oh God, open our eyes that we may see the goodness in this world, the goodness in ourselves, and the goodness in the people around us.  Today, we ponder our paths, our dreams, and our lives and we consider also the chance you took in creating us—as part of the whole of creation and as individuals.  Thank you for taking a chance on us.  We do enjoy this world.  And perhaps the seal you placed upon us is one that marks us as courageous.  May we be so brave as to consider our role in the preservation of the Good.  May we be so brave as to be better caretakers of all that is in this Earth.  In your name we pray, Amen.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Kingdom In Us, The Kingdom Before Us

A Sermon Given to St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church
 By Stephanie Little Coyne
January 25, 2015
I know that you believe that at any moment on any given day, Elizabeth, Tim, and I, your pastoral staff, are sitting in the church discussing passages of scripture and all things theological.
On one of those very days, we began a conversation about the Kingdom of God.  An easily-tackled topic, I confessed to my colleagues that it was hard for me to discuss the Kingdom of God as it might exist in the future.  I only had questions, no definite answers, and if I were being really honest, I just didn’t think about it all that much.  Truth be, thinking about the unknown pieces of the future can be anxiety-producing for me, and there’s enough anxiety that exists in the present days.
I confess to you that this subject I’ve willingly chosen today is not one that I’ve mastered. And I’m not really sure I know what Jesus meant when he said, “’the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.’”  But still, I believe that I have a place in the kingdom of God and that you and we have a place in the kingdom and if that is my belief and if it is your belief, then we have to talk about the kingdom, no matter the anxiety or fear or level of confidence we have in the topic.
So today, let’s continue this conversation and see if we can come closer to mastering this “kingdom stuff.”  (I’ll go first.)
I believe that the Kingdom of God lies somewhere in the tension between the here-and-now and the yet-to-come, the fulfilled and the not-yet fulfilled, the within our very beings and somewhere far away from us.  I believe that in the present, and even this day, all souls carry something inside themselves that is a part of what God envisions, and that somehow, in both the extraordinary and quite ordinary parts of our days, the Kingdom is among us, before us, and is true.
I also believe in the very real presence of evil in this world and think that part of the church’s role as a kingdom-representative is to try and collectively understand how to be a light in the face of evil.  I try to steer clear of language that is combative in this discussion because I do believe that we are called to be agents and representatives of peace.
I find the Old Testament passages for the last three weeks to be intriguing.  Think back to three weeks ago—do you remember?  Genesis 1:1-5: The beginning.  The heavens and the earth are created, the light and the darkness are separated.  God’s realm is established.
And then let’s combine last week’s scripture and this week’s.  The Lord calls to the soon-to-be prophet Samuel and to the hesitant prophet Jonah.  Samuel delivers a less-than hopeful message to Eli—Eli’s house would be punished. 
Jonah delivers words of caution to Nineveh, the people turned from their evil ways, and after donning all of the sackcloths in the city, and after some consideration from God, Nineveh is spared from “God’s calamity.”
With these passages, we learn that in God’s realm, composed of the heavens and the earth and light and darkness, there are two possible outcomes for people’s behavior: coming judgment or no impending judgment.  Or if you will, some will move into darkness and some will move into light.  These passages also help us learn some things about the character of God: God creates, speaks, judges, disciplines, pursues, changes, and leaves alone.
The Old Testament understanding of the Kingdom was political.  God is king of the heavens and would establish the throne on earth too: God would be the God of all nations.
And then back to the New Testament reading for today.  The first words that Jesus uses in Mark’s gospel are, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Jesus doesn’t come to earth to temper God nor to make the coming of the kingdom “prettier” or easier.  Jesus emphasizes, just as the prophets emphasize, the need to repent, and repentance, or at least the process of repentance, is not always a pretty thing.  Through his teachings and by his life, Jesus helps give and illustrate a deeper understanding of what the kingdom of God is to be.   
Many believed that the Messiah would come to be the king, to rule, to replace Herod, to replace Caesar, but as we know, Jesus did not overthrow empires or realms.  But he did talk a lot about the kingdom of God.  Think about the Lord’s prayer, (“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…”).  Think about the Beatitudes (“for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”).  Instead of claiming a crown, Jesus gathers people and calls out to people and announces, “You! I beckon to you to come and go with me, walk with me and help deliver the good news and the message of the kingdom together.” 
Jesus came to earth emphasizing the necessity of personal reconciliation with God and with neighbor, all the while showing us how to live and all the while encouraging us to share his message.
Marcus Borg, a New Testament scholar who passed away last Wednesday, said, “I think being a Christian is primarily about transformation this side of death.  Being Christian is about a transforming relationship with God in the here and now.”  Borg goes on,
[There is] personal transformation and social transformation, both are utterly central to Jesus, and if we emphasize only one of these, we miss half the gospel.  The strength and weakness of much of conservative Christianity is that it emphasizes primarily [personal transformation].  The strength and weakness of much of liberal Christianity is that it emphasizes primarily [social transformation].
The Christian life is about our love for God, and loving God means paying attention to our relationship with God, and paying attention to that relationship is the process of being born again.  Loving God means loving that which God loves.[1]
I don’t know if Borg was completely accurate in his assessment of conservatives and liberals, but I do think that too often a dichotomy exists when it should not.  In the kingdom of God there are scenes of personal reconciliation and scenes where people are feeding the person beside them at the dinner table.
And it’s in this cross of one and all that we find the great need for the church.
So what if the church isn’t perfect or peaceful?  How can the church teach about the kingdom or have a place in the kingdom if the church isn’t perfect? 
The church, full of imperfect and sinning souls, forces those souls to sit down together, not necessarily to place nice, but to work through difficult matters.  When the church shows that it can be a place for folks of all kinds, and it shows that its intended outcome is not to melt people into one like mind—people can still be one and yet part of it all—then it demonstrates that this “kingdom stuff” is possible, right now, right here on earth.
Through its teachings and by its life, the church, as Jesus, should help give and illustrate a deeper understanding of what the kingdom of God is to be.
In Luke’s gospel, the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom was coming and Jesus answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed….for in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Translators differ on the meaning of the Greek word, ἐντὸς.  Some translate the word as I’ve just read, as “among,” and some say, “within,” but I like to think that there is room and reason for both definitions.  I believe that there is something within me and within you and among us that is created by God with such a holy element that it is forward facing to the kingdom.
Way out in Bayou Villere, a community of shrimpers brings food to a woman and her ailing husband.  She in turn, brings out homemade vanilla ice cream and they share this meal together on tables by the water.
At a church in Gentilly, a woman prepares a Wednesday night meal of red beans and rice for people in the surrounding neighborhood.  Due to some smart shopping, leftover food, and the monetary donations of the woman’s mother, the weekly meal serves anywhere from 50-100 people, most of whom are children.
In Central City, a charter school boasts teachers, children, and volunteers from a rainbow of different ethnicities and backgrounds and they all come together to learn and to create wonderful works of art.
At a nursing home, right across the street from the levee in Little Woods, a nurses’ aide goes into the room of a 24-year-old man and feeds him while they both watch Judge Judy, laughing and grumbling along, just like they do together every day.
In St. Roch, an immigrant family runs a neighborhood grocery store while the patriarch of the family lies dying in the family’s living space in the back of the store.  His son gives him his food and his medicine and then returns to stocking the shelves of the market.
Over in the Desire neighborhood, a 67-year-old woman wakes early in the morning, dresses and feeds her granddaughter and disabled son, takes her granddaughter to school and then heads to work.
In the lower ninth ward, an elderly woman sits on her front porch when she is able, and waves and speaks to passers-by.
Uptown, at the children’s hospital, a football player stops by for a visit and signs the t-shirt of a 19-year-old boy who is battling leukemia.  A chaplain and a nervous grandfather look on the scene with pride in both young men.
Along Tchoupitoulas, in the Lower Riverside district, at a local book store that is closing, a teenage girl asks the owner, “but where will I go to read books and talk about them?”  And the owner writes down her phone number on a business card, pushes it across the front desk and replies, “you’ll call me and we’ll go meet at the library.”
In both City and Audubon parks, the morning sunrises give off a golden light in which the ibises, egrets, and herons announce that they are ready to share their space with mothers and sons, runners and toddlers, cyclists and daydreamers.
In the 6+ years that I have lived in New Orleans, it has been my experience that one of the alluring distinctives about this place is that if you get to know just a few people in each neighborhood, or ward, or corner, you start to feel like you might be a part of that place.  And when that feeling exists in more than one place, you start to feel like the world is smaller, and people are closer to you than you might have expected, and that you might be able to be just who you are anywhere you go.
For all of the spaces in this city that seem to be as far away from the kingdom as a place can be, there are places here that we can classify as, to borrow the Celtic term, “thin,” or places that are shortening the distance between earth and heaven.
And there are places in Birmingham like this. 
And there are landscapes all around, like those visualized to us by Thoreau and Annie Dillard that are like this.
There are places in Nome and London and Mozambique and Busan that are like this.
There are places in the Church that are like this.
And there are places within us that are like this. 
Frederick Buechner writes, “turn away from madness, cruelty, shallowness, blindness.  Turn toward that tolerance, compassion, sanity, hope, justice that we all have in us at our best.”
Have we gotten any closer to understanding?  Maybe, at least, our eyes will see in just a little bit brighter color.
“Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”   Phillippians 4:8
The Kingdom in us, the Kingdom before us; the Kingdom in us, the Kingdom before us.  Amen.

Pastoral Prayer, 1/25/2015
Oh God,
There are days and longer days and weeks when life calls us away from the beautiful.  We feel stricken and marred and labeled and marked and to see the other side of the wall is an almost offensive task to consider.  Lie down beside us, keep us warm, keep us safe.  Invoke within us vigor enough to climb out and over. 
Our faith is not at issue, but we admit that the tide is overwhelming, enough that our hope has waned.  Send us angels, spirits of encouragement, preparers who will nourish us.  Help us reveal harmful influences and replace them with more pleasant tones. 
Oh Mighty One, we pour our heart out before you, be our rock and our deliverer.  
Dear Lord, may our grief and dimness never be so far away that we are unable to see sadness in the people around us and thus be provoked to offer reception.  For when we are able, we want to be as good to a hurting soul as others have been to us.  We dream that our sorrow is not without some gained wisdom. 
And Lord, when we have been sustained to joy, may our first inclination be to celebrate with you, oh Redeemer.
Hold tight to us, we pray, and hear us as we offer with sincerity:
            Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
            Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done
            On earth as it is in heaven.
            Give us this day, our daily bread,
            And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
            And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
            For thine is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.  Amen.