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.

[1] http://explorefaith.org/LentenHomily02.26.02.html