Sunday, February 18, 2018

It’s all about the journey (A sermon from Mark 1:9-15)

If I was asked to summarize my understanding of the Christian faith in one or two brief statements I would say this. One, being a Christian is about a journey into the discovery and embodiment of the love of God. All authentic religion is about tapping into the Divine Love and Compassion that is at the heart of everything. But what makes Christianity different than other religious traditions is the second thing I would say, namely: The Christian way into the experience and expression of the love of God is by following Jesus. This is fundamental to the Christian confession Jesus is Lord. Christians mean different things when they say Jesus is Lord (conservatives would not mean exactly the same thing as liberals or progressives like myself). However, the common denominator should be all-out commitment to follow Jesus – to model his life and live out his teachings. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians today, both conservative and liberal, who are not committed to actually doing that.

In the book of Acts, believers are commonly called “disciples” and people “who belong to the way.” In the book of Acts “the way” does not mean the way to heaven, it means the way of life Jesus lived – the values he embodied, the grace and truth he incarnated, the love he expressed. Even in John’s Gospel, which is the most metaphorical and symbolical of the four Gospels, when Jesus is identified as “the way” it’s not about the way to heaven, it’s about the way into a loving relationship with God and others. It is an eternal relationship, but this relationship is about the ever present “now.” Eternity is now.

Being a Christian then, is all about a journey into the experience and expression of the love of God, which we learn how to do by following Jesus.

Today’s Gospel text gives us some key insights into how we do this. In John PhiIip Newell’s book titled, The Rebirthing of God, he shares some great stories. He tells about getting to know a Roman Catholic priest in Portsmouth, England when he was serving the Anglican Diocese there. Father David, the priest, was passionate about peacemaking and the work of justice. For many years he had given himself to the poorest and powerless of Portsmouth. He was a renowned and popular figure throughout the city. In fact, he was so well liked in the community that despite his unorthodox ways the bishop was reluctant to rein him in. Father David was gay and lived openly with his partner who was a Zen Buddhist.

Father David invited Dr. Newell and his wife, Ali to lead a series on spirituality in the church. Father David suggested that he and Ali come one Sunday morning to get to know the community before beginning the series. The Sunday they attended was the World Day of Prayer for Peace. Father David gave a passionate sermon on nonviolence. Then they moved into the celebration of communion.

Although little children had been running around during the sermon, free to come and go from their families, they were now pulled back into the pews by their parents to sit attentively for Communion. Dr. Newell and his wife hadn’t really noticed this soon enough, and their little one, age three, was still clattering along the wooden bench next to them with his hard-heeled shoes on. Suddenly, a woman on the far side of the church shouted out, “Would someone keep that child quiet!” Father David did not realize that the admonition was aimed at the Newell family, but anyway he brought a halt to the liturgy of communion and spoke to the woman who complained, “Claudia, if that is how you feel leave.” Claudia replied, “But Father, I couldn’t hear the words of the liturgy.”

Turning a little red with frustration, Father David said, “We have been building a community here that is inclusive of every person and every age. So Claudia, if that is how you feel, leave.” At this point the congregation was highly attentive. This was real drama in the midst of the formal liturgy, but, Newell says that the congregation didn’t look worried. Maybe this was common.  

Claudia spoke a third time and this time Father David now bright red in the face, slammed his hands down on the altar and headed straight for Claudia. Father David’s Buddhist partner, seeing fire in his eyes, sprang up from his seat to stop Father David from proceeding down the aisle. Dr. Newell discovered later, that Claudia had been, from the very beginning, one of Father David’s staunchest supporters. When Father David reached Claudia, with real puzzlement in his voice he said, “Claudia, what are you saying?”

Claudia left the sanctuary in tears, followed be a few members of the congregation who went out to console her. Then Father David returned to the altar. This is what he said, “I cannot proceed until I ask forgiveness. I do not apologize for defending the place of children, but I do apologize for my violence of heart. I was wrong. I ask God’s forgiveness and I will seek Claudia’s forgiveness.” He then proceeded with the celebration of Communion. And before the end of the liturgy Claudia was back in her seat to receive the bread and wine from the hands of Father David. Apparently, the family fight was over.

After telling the story in his book, this is what Dr. Newell says, “There are angels of light and angels of darkness in us all. One moment we may be preaching nonviolence as the only true energy for real transformation in our world. The next moment we may be consumed by violence of heart.” It’s true isn’t it?

Today’s Gospel text says that just after the Divine Voice affirmed Jesus’ sonship, the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness [the desert], where he spent forty days. The reference to forty days is clearly an allusion to Israel’s forty years spent in the desert on their journey to the land of promise. Mark says he was tempted by Satan, and “he was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.” In Newell’s words we all encounter angels of light and angels of darkness within us. In Mark’s version the angels of darkness are “wild beasts” and the angels of light are simply “angels.”

In the story of Cain and Abel, when Cain turns against Abel the storywriter says, “sin is lurking at the door; it’s desire is for you, but you must master it.” Able’s anger and jealousy brings him to the brink of violence, which he succumbs to. It’s depicted as a wild beast waiting at the door, and unless he masters it, it will consume and destroy him.

These wild beasts, these negative powers and forces – whether it’s anger, or prejudice, or lust for power and position, or greed, or whatever it is, these anti-human, life-diminishing powers will consume us if we allow them. But we are not alone in the struggle. There are angels along the path to help us.

These angels come in many forms. Angels in the biblical tradition are messengers and servants of God. These angels may come to us in the form of an AA group or some other small group, or a faith community like our ours, or a good friend who is honest enough to tell us the truth even though we may not want to hear the truth, and who loves us enough to stay with us regardless of how we respond. Sometimes an angel may come in the form of a particular spiritual practice like contemplative prayer, or the practice of solitude. And sometimes it can be as specific as a story that moves us, a chapter in a book, a passage of scripture, or a conversation with a friend or loved one, or some particular teaching that we hear, maybe for the first time, even though it’s been taught many times. How often we hear, we don’t really hear?

Now, central and critical to our growth and progress toward knowing, experiencing, and living out God’s love is this: Our readiness to change and our capacity to trust.  Mark’s Gospel calls this “believing” and “repenting.” According to Mark, when Jesus announced the good news of God’s kingdom, he said, “The time has been fulfilled, now is the time to act, the kingdom of God is right here, you can embrace it and live it, you can live out the love and mercy and justice and peace of God, if you will repent and believe, that is, if you will change your mind, turn around, get on the right path, and trust in who you are and trust in God’s grace to enable you to become who you are.”

So many of the wild beasts we encounter along the journey have to do with the ego, the little self, what some writers call, our false self – they call it the false self because it’s not who we are. The ego can take us down two wayward paths. Some of us struggle with an inflated ego. We have a tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we should. Others of us struggle with a deflated ego. We have a tendency to think less of ourselves than we should. The one leads to arrogance and defensiveness; the other leads to a diminished sense of self. Both are life-defeating. Some of us need to realize that as a son or daughter of God we are not all that, we are no better than anyone else, we all belong, we are one family and all of us count, not just some of us. Others of us need to realize that we are all that, we are children of God, we are one with God and everyone else, and we have a special calling and gifts to share with others. That’s part of the paradox of the life of faith. We are not all that and we are all that. We are nothing, and we are everything.

Repenting and trusting are not one-and-done actions. Repenting and trusting are daily necessities as we journey into the wonder and mystery of divine love. This is why, in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus tells the disciples to deny the little self and take up their cross and follow him, Luke adds the word “daily.” Luke wanted it to be clear to his readers that this process of repenting – this denying of the little self, and this dying to the negative forces in our lives – is something that should happen daily. It must occur over and over and over again.

This involves intentionally. This means on a daily basis we have to be deliberate about nurturing a spirit of honesty and humility. This involves staying awake and alert to what is going on in our hearts on a daily basis. We are all going to mess us. We will let down our guards. The fragile ego has devised all sorts of ways to keep us denying and defending our little selves. The ego has many defense mechanisms in place that blind us to the truth about God and ourselves. .  

We are all going to fall and stumble on this journey. Maybe you have heard the phrase, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” Parker Palmer says that whoever came up with that phrase must have had a great fantasy life. It’s never just onward and upward. The journey we are on is up and down, this way, that way, and back around. There is no such thing as a human life completely free of all fears, anxieties, insecurities, and doubts. Even Jesus on the cross, according to Mark and Matthew’s version, questioned God’s presence. There is no such thing as a human life free of all negative and life-diminishing forces.

The key for making progress on this journey toward loving God and loving neighbor is being aware enough to make quick course corrections like Father David made in the story I told earlier. Father David gave in to his violence of heart. But he was quick to see his sin. And he was quick to acknowledge it, to confess it, and to turn from it.  

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. As a church, with people of God around the world, we begin the journey that will lead us eventually to Good Friday and then Easter Sunday. Perhaps the place to begin is where Jesus begins in the text today. The Divine Voice announces and declares his sonship; “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I hope you will hear that voce today. I hope you hear it right now. You are a son of God. You are a daughter of God. It’s your birthright. And nothing can alter that realty. As Philip Yancey likes to say there is nothing you can do to make God love you more. And there is nothing you can do to make God love you less. You can trust that. If you will just listen to the Divine Voice that arises out of your true self, you will know it’s true. That’s a good place to begin. And that’s a good place to keep coming back to every day. Unfortunately, western Christianity really messed us when they put the emphasis on our badness (some teachers in the church called it total depravity). The creation stories emphasize our original goodness. Sin comes later. But sin doesn’t eradicate the image of God which is impressed upon our souls. We just have to trust this and live it.  

When we gain the confidence that we are loved, that we are God’s daughters and sons, and nothing is going to change that, we are better prepared to tangle with the wild beasts, and we are more apt to receive grace and help from the angels God sends our way.

So let’s be intentional this first Sunday of Lent. Let’s lay aside the many ways we defend, excuse, deny, ignore, and repress our little self. Let’s be quick to confess our sins and acknowledge our failures. Let’s do all we can to stay on the path that leads us to a greater knowledge and experience of God’s love.

Gracious God, help us to be aware of the wild beasts that are lying in wait at the door of our minds and hearts. Give us the wisdom and the will to seek out and receive the help you send our way. And may we always keep coming back no matter happens in our live to the truth of who we really are – your beloved daughters and sons. Amen.  

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Light Within (a sermon from Mark 9:2-9)

Jesus was affirmed as Son of God at his baptism by John, and now he is affirmed once again on the mount that we call the mount of Transfiguration. Actually, it’s not hard to understand why Jesus might need this second affirmation by God. In the passage just prior to the Transfiguration Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to undergo suffering and death. He warns them that they he will be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and then he will rise, that is, he will be vindicated by God. Jesus didn’t need any special revelation to see this coming. He spoke truth to power. He challenged the domination system by preaching the kingdom of God. He continuously violated the holiness code of the gatekeepers and opposed their systems of worthiness. He knew what that would mean, and he tried to prepare his disciples for the same fate. He tells them that they must be willing to lose their lives to gain their lives, and he challenges them to take up their cross and follow him, even if it means rejection, suffering, and death. That is the political and religious climate of Jesus’ world.  

But his disciples are not ready to do that. They seem to constantly misunderstand his intentions. Peter functions as the spokesperson for the group, and when Jesus warns them about his rejection and death, Peter takes Jesus aside and the text says, “began to rebuke him.” Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter calling him Satan, which is a hard word. So Jesus has to contend, not only with the animosity of the religious leaders who want him dead; he has to endure the continued blindness and dullness of his disciples who just don’t get it. So, in this context, with the religious powers plotting against him and his own disciples clueless, Jesus hears the divine voice affirming his identity and his calling.

Jesus was a sage (a teacher of wisdom). He was a prophet and a reformer. And he was also a mystic. What is a mystic? A mystic is someone who is known for her/his  intuitive sense and direct experience of God. Jesus seemed to suggest that we can all be mystics, but few of us are. So we have to help each other develop this intuitive sense of the divine and claim who we are.

Like Jesus, we are all sons and daughters of God. And like Jesus, we all have a calling to serve and live in such a way that we become who we are. And if we have not learned how to experience this sense of who we are intuitively or in our direct experience of God, then we need to help each other. Parents can help their children. Grandparents can help their grandchildren. Friends can help one another. We need to affirm over and over again that we are all God’s beloved children. 

We don’t have to earn this. We don’t have to recite some secret initiation rite like the sinner’s prayer. We don’t have to believe any “fundamentals” of the faith. We don’t have to obey four spiritual laws. We don’t have to walk down the church isle and take the preacher by the hand. I am not suggesting that these things do not have a place, but none of these things are the things that make us children of God. And it doesn’t matter what other people say or do or believe, we are all children of God by virtue of being alive.

That’s grace sisters and brothers. You can’t do anything to earn it. If you had to believe certain things or do certain things in order to become a child of God, then you could claim some special privilege and advantage that sets you above others who don’t believe what you believe or practice their faith the way you practice yours. God doesn’t play favorites. God may indeed have some special tasks for us to do, but we are God’s children by pure grace.

Now, if we are going to live in and experience this grace then we need to trust in and be faithful to this relationship with God rooted in grace. But our trust in and faithfulness to this relationship does not earn us the right to be a child of God. We are already the children of God. By faith we claim who we already are. And by our faithfulness to the ways of God we become who we already are.

In the creation story that appears first in our sacred text God creates the human couple in God’s likeness. We bear God’s image. That’s who we are. Now, we mar that image through our sins – our egoism, greed, prejudice, arrogance, hate, violence, our lust for power and prestige and possessions mar that image. But that image is stamped eternally on our souls.

In the second creation story God forms the human creature from the dust of the earth, which is the dust of the universe. Then God breathes into the human creature the breath or spirit of life (breath and Spirit is the same word in the Hebrew), and the human creature becomes a living being infused with the life of God. We are alive right now because God, the Holy Spirit, the Christ, the Abba of Jesus, the Ultimate Reality and divine energy of the Universe flows through our body and soul. 

Paul said to the Corinthians, “Your body is the temple of God.” And that is true of everyone. In God we live, and move, and have our being. God is infinitely more than who we are, but God is also intimately a part of who we are. God is the transcendent Other, but God is also at one with the human family. And all other creatures, all lesser life forms are sustained by the same Divine life force.

What we need to do is trust this and live this, so we can consciously and intentionally participate in the flow of Divine love and goodness in the world. You are a child of God. You have a unique calling as one of God’s dear children. You have gifts to share. You belong – to God and everyone else. We don’t create our union with God or with the creation. Our oneness with God and everything else is a given. We just have to realize it and go out and live it. And Jesus shows us how.

The symbolism of the transfiguration shows us what is possible for all of us. Don’t elevate Jesus so high that his life is unreachable. In living out his calling as son of God, Jesus was transfigured by the love of God. But this was not a glory that came down upon him, it was a glory that radiated from within him. That same light and glory resides in us. It is the light and glory of divine love.

Listen to what Paul says in a beautiful passage in Second Corinthians, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

Look in a mirror. What do you see? Do you see the glory of God? You should. The Spirit resides in you. The glory of the divine, the Lord, the Christ abides in you. It is the glory of love. It is the light of grace and truth. It is the illumination of mercy and justice. The more you allow this divine light and glory to shine through your life, the more you grow, the more you become, the more you are transfigured, the more you are transformed form one degree of glory to another.

In the context where Jesus tells the disciples about his death, where he anticipates his own loss of life, he says that we have to lose our lives in order to gain our lives. That paradox is not only true when it comes to that final letting go, it is true right now. There are things we have to lose in order to live – that is, live more fully and and honestly and authentically. There are things we have to lose in order to live more lovingly and generously and graciously. The more fully human (the more gracious and loving and good) we become the more divine we become, the more like God we become. The more lovingly human we become, the more the divine life shines through our humanity.

Richard Rohr says: “Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control, power, money, pleasure, and security. Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else. We often gave them a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of ‘Christian’ countries that tend to be consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious, and addictive as everybody else – and often more so, I am afraid.”

Those are things we have to lose, we have to let go of, for it’s only by letting go, it’s only by losing, relinquishing, surrendering these things that we allow the space for the divine love and grace and mercy to well up from within. The spark is already there, but it needs to be fanned into a flame. It needs some air to breathe and some space to grow so that we, too, like Jesus might radiate the light of God’s love and mercy.

Robert Fulghum tells about an institute dedicated to peace and is particularly committed to rapprochement between Germans and Cretans. It sits on a rocky bay on the island of Crete next to a Greek Orthodox Monastery. It overlooks an airstrip where Nazi paratroopers invaded Crete and were attacked by peasants wielding kitchen knives. The retribution from the Germans was terrible. Populations of whole villages were lined up and shot. High above the institute is a cemetery with a single cross marking the mass grave of Cretans killed by the Germans. But then across the bay on yet another hill is the regimented burial ground of the Nazi paratroopers. The memorials were intentionally placed there so that all might see and never forget. At the war’s end, hate was the only weapon the Cretans had, and it was a weapon many vowed never to give up.

This institute for peace located there is directed by Dr. Alexander Papaderos. At war’s end he came to believe that the Germans and the Cretans had much to give one another—much to learn from one another. He believed that if they could forgive each other and construct a creative relationship, then any people could. Fulghum attended a seminar there with Dr. Papaderos. At the conclusion, Papaderos explained how he discovered his life’s meaning and calling.

During the war as a child, very poor, his family lived in a remote village. One day he found some broken pieces from a mirror that had come from a German motorcycle. He kept the largest piece he found. By scratching it on a stone he made it round and kept it in his pocket. He had a little game he played where he used the mirror to reflect light into places the sun never reached – deep holes and crevices.

As Papederos told this story he pulled the little piece of mirror out of his billfold. As he grew he began to realize that the mirror was a metaphor for his life. He says, “I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world—into the black places in the hearts of people—and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise.”

He says, “I am not the light or the source of light. But light . . . is there, and it will shine only in many dark places if I reflect it.” Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” John’s Gospel claims that Jesus is the light of the world. Both are true. Jesus did it better than any of us will ever do, but we, too, are light just like Jesus. We are children of God and children of humanity, just like Jesus. The source of all light is God, the Holy Spirit, the Christ, the Abba of Jesus. I am not the source. You are not the source. God, the Spirit, the Christ is the source of all the good and the love and compassion and concern for justice that is built into our humanity. Our part is to let that light shine through our attitudes and actions, our words and deeds.

So, the question is: How can we best do that? What do we need to do? What do you and I need to change? What do we need to lose, to let go of, to relinquish? What practices do we need to engage in? What attitudes do we need to adopt? What habits do we need to develop? In order for our lives to better radiate the light of God’s love, truth, and grace.

Our gracious God, may we all come to realize that while we are not better than anyone else, we are not less either – we are your beloved daughters and sons. May the light that shone so brightly in Jesus, the light that indwells every person, be free to shine through our lives that we might reflect your love and goodness and passion for justice into all the dark places where the light needs to shine. Amen.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Jesus Called Followers Not Worshipers.

(This article was first published in the Frankfort State Journal, Feb. 2, 2018)
In the Gospel texts that tell the story of Jesus one thing is undeniable. Jesus called disciples. Do you ever wonder why Jesus said, “Follow me,” but never said, “Worship me”?

He said to some fishermen, “Follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people.” For whatever reason he invited them to walk away from their vocation of trying to lure fish into a net, and pursue a calling that would involve luring people into a greater purpose and cause that Jesus called the kingdom of God.

I like to call it the kin-dom of God, because it’s all about loving relationships. Jesus said, “Follow me and I will teach you how to love God with the totality of your being and love your neighbor as yourself” (see Matt. 22-34-40). This is grounded in the reality that we are all connected and constitute one family. (See Acts 17:22-31 where Paul tells the Athenian philosophers that we are “all God’s offspring” and that “in God we live, move, and have our existence.”)

Jesus says, “Follow me and I will teach you how to heal people’s brokenness and liberate them from the life-demeaning, life-diminishing forces that oppress and hold them in fear and bondage. As you heal and liberate others, you will also be healed and liberated from your own false attachments, addictions, and sins.” (Almost all the healing and exorcism stories in the Gospels teach this.)

When we follow Jesus we discover the honesty and humility to face our own sins (greed, pride, prejudice, selfish ambition, etc.), and the courage to confront the destructive “isms” at loose in our world (sexism, racism, nationalism, materialism, elitism, etc.) and the policies and systems of injustice that we are all complicit in. (Consider in the Gospels how often Jesus exposed and confronted the injustices of the system, provoking the powers that be.)

Jesus says, “Follow me and I will teach you how to see so you can help others as well as yourself step out of the darkness of pride, prejudice, and hate into the light of humility, belonging, and love for all people” (see especially John 9).

Jesus says, “Follow me and I will teach you how to break down the walls that divide us and treat everyone with dignity, respect, mercy, and grace.” Jesus was constantly in trouble with the religious leaders because he was so inclusive, welcoming all people to the table of fellowship.

Consider the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. The story is told in response to a fellow Jew who asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” In the story a Samaritan, who is of a different religion and race, shows mercy to a Jew, in contrast to two Jewish religious leaders who walk past the victimized man without stopping to help.

If Jesus were to tell this story to us today, the good neighbor would not be a Samaritan, but a Muslim. Let this sink in. Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists (pick any non-Christian religious group) who love others as themselves are doing the will of God, while Christians who exclude, hate, and build walls of division are not. 

Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12). What if we formulated and implemented an immigration policy based on love of neighbor and the golden rule. It most certainly would be vastly different from the merciless, unjust policies and practices flowing out of our current administration.

Unlike those today who preach a gospel of getting (getting heaven, getting rich, getting all one’s desires fulfilled, etc.), Jesus modeled a life and preached a gospel of giving (Matt. 20:20-28). Luke describes an early community of Jesus followers this way: “Now the whole group of those who believed [that is, were committed to the way of Jesus] were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. . . . There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32, 34-35).

What if our legislators put together a tax code based on that practice? Or even one that gave some consideration to the principles and practices of mercy and restorative justice? What we got is a tax overhaul that expands further the huge disparity between the really well-to-do and those not-so-well-off. The most vulnerable among us are left to scramble for the crumbs that trickle down from the rich man’s table (see Luke 16:19-31).

It’s easy to say prayers and sing songs to a Jesus “high and lifted up.” It’s much more difficult to love like Jesus in the daily grind of life. No doubt about it. It’s much easier to worship Jesus than to follow Jesus. Is there any doubt what the Christ wants of us?  

The gospel of salvation according to? (A sermon from Mark 1:29-39)

Whenever I am in a conversation with another another Christian over some issue, and when the person I am conversing with claims that his or her position is the biblical view, I like to respond by asking, “Which one?” The fact is, there are generally several different biblical views or perspectives on any given theme. One of the things we have become aware of with the discovery of such documents as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary and some other ancient Christian writings is that early Christianity was even more diverse than scholars originally thought. Early Christianity was quite diverse.

This is particularly true with regard to the Christian view of salvation. Generally, there is no one biblical view about anything. There are biblical views and emphases. And yet throughout Christian history we have seemingly been obsessed with trying to synthesize and systematize the teachings of scripture. What typically happens is that the one person or group of persons doing the systematizing favors a particular understanding, then proceeds to organize the rest of scripture around that particular understanding.  

Of course, we all do this to some degree. We are socialized and indoctrinated into a particular version of Christianity. We may be born into it. Or we may be converted into it later in life. But whatever the timing and the process we are taught a particular understanding, and then of course, our tendency is to read all of scripture in light of that particular understanding. It was quite an awakening for me to see how narrowly and rigidly I once interpreted scripture and the way I made everything fit the particular view I held at that particular time.

In the New Testament there are different ways of understanding and appropriating the good news of salvation. When it comes to understanding salvation, the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke tend to share a common view, though there are clearly individual differences. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke salvation is about living in the kingdom of God. The healings and exorcisms of Jesus in these three Gospels are ways the Gospel writers symbolize and actualize the good news. The individual stories of healings and exorcisms function almost like parables of salvation. The passage today is an example of that. Jesus heals the sick and sets free those possessed by unclean spirits, and he does this as he proclaims the gospel of the kingdom of God.

The power of the kingdom of God according to the Gospel of Mark is the power to heal our brokenness and save us from the anti-human powers that would oppress us and possess us, so that we are free to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. If we are pervaded by greed, by prejudice, by jealousy, by anger, by unforgiveness, if we are deluded and controlled by sexism, racism, elistism, egotism, materialism, classism, or any other destructive “ism” we are not free to serve and love others. The power of God to save in Mark’s Gospel is the power to free from these sins and anything that would hold us down, from all negative patterns of thinking and behaving, so we can engage and participate in God’s work to create a good and just world.

The power to save is the power to free us from our negative self-images and negative judgments of others, so that we can be healthy and whole, so that we can be loving, kind, compassionate, honest, humble, caring, empathetic, generous, and gracious, and can participate in God’s dream for a world of peace and equality. The power to save is not just to transform us individually, though certainly God cares deeply about our individual transformation. But ultimately God’s plan is to transform our world through our families, communities, organizations, and the institutions we are part of. The power to save is personal, but it is also communal aimed at our common good and the good of the planet.

In our Gospel text there is a sense of urgency in spreading the message and participating in the healing and liberating works of the kingdom of God. When Jesus withdraws in solitude to pray, his disciples go get him and say, “Everyone is searching for you.” But Jesus can’t stay in one place too long because he feels compelled to get the message out. He says, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.” That’s his mission according to Mark. So he goes about from one place to the next preaching, healing, and liberating folks from the life diminishing powers that possess and oppress people and communities, so that people and communities are able to truly love and care for one another. That’s what salvation looks like in Mark’s Gospel.

Now, the next big question is: How does one experience it. In the Synoptic Gospels it’s by following Jesus. By following Jesus we learn to let go of and turn from negative and destructive ways of thinking and living, so we can love God and love neighbor. By following Jesus we learn to trust in and be faithful to the way of grace and truth, mercy and justice, compassion and love. The biblical words used for this are repentance and faith. Turning from all these life-diminishing ways, trusting in and being faithful to the way of Jesus is what repentance and faith are about. We learn to do this by following Jesus, by being an apprentice or disciple of Jesus. That's how we experience salvation. 

Now, the other big question is this: Is following Jesus the only way one can experience the healing and liberating love and grace of God? Another way to ask that question is: How big and inclusive is your God? If you were taught what I was taught for many years and haven’t changed then you will most likely say: No, there is no other way. Now, that's not what I believe today, but that is what I was taught and believed during the early part of my ministry. 

Back in the summer of 2006, Newsweek magazine featured a cover story about Billy Graham. Probably no figure in conservative Christianity has been more loved and revered than Graham. He has spoken to millions around the world, counseled U.S. presidents, and strongly represented the evangelical view of Christian faith. As a young Southern Baptist preacher I took my cue from Graham and with every point of my sermon I would billow out in typical Graham style, “the Bible says.” In this rather remarkable interview with Newsweek, the elder Graham was much more humble and less confident in what the Bible says. He admitted in the interview that he no longer thinks one needs to take every verse in the Bible literally (that’s a big admission for a biblical inerrantist). When he was asked whether heaven would be closed to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Christians he refused to be decisive. He said, “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t.” Then he said, “I believe the love of God is absolute.” He told his interviewer that he was spending more time on the love of God in his final years and that he believed God loves everybody regardless of what label they have. If I remember, he took some heat from the evangelical community for saying that. Billy Graham came very close to letting go of his exclusive view of salvation that he preached all his life.

A few years ago I wrote a piece for the Unfundamentalist Christian Blog at Patheos. When I submitted the article I titled it, “Rick Warren’s Conundrum.” The editor changed the title to “Eliminating Evangelical Double-speak about Salvation.” (That will make sense to you in a minute.)

Rick Warren is the pastor of a very large mega-church in California which he founded, and he is the author of The Purpose Driven Life which has sold in the millions (and is one of the best-selling religious books of all time outside the Bible). In a book by Rabbi David Wolpe titled, Why Faith Matters, Rev. Warren wrote the foreword. In fact, this was proudly advertised on the book’s front cover as a selling point: “Foreword by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life.” This is what Warren said about the book and Rabbi Wolpe: 

“This beautiful book is a gift to all of us. So much of what is published today about faith just rehashes warmed-over clich├ęs and feels out of touch with reality. In contrast, every page of this special volume has the smell of authenticity on it. . . . The closer I get to David Wolpe, the more I am impressed by this man of faith. As an author, religious teacher, professor, cancer victim, and television commentator, his unique contribution of experiences has given him a credible platform from which he presents the case that faith in God truly matters at this critical time in our world. Regardless of where you are in your own personal faith journey, I’m certain that his profound insights in this book will stimulate your thinking and even touch your soul about the reality of God in fresh and surprising ways.”

So that’s what Christian conservative, evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren said in the Foreword. Keep in mind that Rick Warren built his huge church on the foundational principle that only through faith in Jesus can one be saved. He built his church on an exclusive view of salvation. And it should be obvious to anyone that Rabbi Wolpe’s “faith in God” is not the same as “faith in Jesus,” which Warren believes is essential for salvation.

In 2012 Warren was interviewed by ABC’s Jake Tapper and was asked if he believed that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Warren responded, “I do believe that. I believe that because Jesus said it. . . . I’m betting my life that Jesus wasn’t a liar.” (Warren is referring to John 14:6 where the Jesus of John’s Gospel says that no one comes to the Father except through him.) Next, Tapper pointed out that Warren had a number of friends of other religious traditions and that he was involved in interfaith dialogue with these friends (like Rabbi Wolpe, who is certainly Warren’s friend). So he asked Warren, “Why would a benevolent God tell those friends of yours who are not evangelical Christians, I’m sorry you don’t get to go to heaven?” That’s a great question isn’t it? Warren danced all around the question. He clearly didn’t want to answer. This is how he finally sidestepped it. He said, “I don't think any of us deserve to go to heaven. . . I think the only way any of us get into heaven is God's grace. . . People say, well, I'm better than so-and-so. You probably are. In fact, I have no doubt many non-believers are better than me in certain moral issues. . . . I'm not getting to heaven on my goodness. I'm getting to heaven on what I believe Jesus said is grace. And the fact is it's available to everybody.” Now, that sounds good, but clearly, Warren didn’t answer the question. He dodged the question. So everyone gets in by grace, that’s good, but, here’s the question: Does that mean everyone has to believe in Jesus in order to receive grace (in which case, grace really wouldn’t be grace if you put that kind of stipulation on it)? Warren didn’t say.

Tapper was gracious and let it ride. He didn’t press him. He knew Warren didn’t want to answer the question and he didn’t make him answer. He let it go. I would love to hear Warren actually attempt to answer the question about his friends not going to heaven in a public forum where his non-Christian friends are present. Think about what Rick Warren said about Rabbi Wolpe’s book in the piece I just read. And yet according to Warren’s exclusive view of salvation which he founded and grew his mega-church on, Rabbi Wolpe is going to hell because he doesn’t believe in Jesus in any Christian sense. That is Rick Warren’s conundrum. My editor called it double-speak. I still like my title better. How can Warren say what he says about Rabbi Wolpe and not believe that Rabbi Wolpe is going to heaven? It all comes back to Warren’s very narrow, exclusive view of salvation.

It’s hard for people like Warren to admit they have been wrong. It’s hard for them to let go of their exclusive views even though they themselves have become more generous and gracious than the God of their exclusive views. I’m sure Rick Warren knows if he were to admit he had been wrong and if he adopted a more inclusive view of salvation it would most likely tear his church apart. That’s his dilemma. In my opinion he has spiritually and morally outgrown his theology but he’s trapped in it. Rob Bell, who is the author of the best seller, Love Wins, did the same thing. But Rob Bell refused to be trapped and refused to stop growing. When Rob Bell left his exclusive view of salvation he also left his church, a mega-church that, like Warren, he had founded.

I like Rick Warren. I am praying for Rick Warren. Warren is one of the few evangelical leaders today who at least doesn’t believe the world is flat and hasn’t fallen off the edge of it. There is a sincerity and authenticity to him. So I am praying that his eyes will be opened and he will find the courage to embrace an inclusive gospel, so at the very least the God he preaches is as gracious and loving as he is.

What if more of us believed in and trusted in a bigger, more inclusive God. What if more of us understood salvation in terms of healing and wholeness and liberation from the life diminishing forces that possess us and oppress us, so that we are free to truly love God and love others? What if more Christians, and not just Christians but religious adherents of other religious traditions who are exclusivists in their faith (Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, name a religion) – what if more exclusionists the world over would give up their exclusivism and become more inclusive in their understanding of God and God’s relationship to human beings? What a difference it could make toward vastly expanding respect and compassion for all people and advancing the common good. What a difference it could make in moving us toward equality and fairness and justice and world peace. Just maybe sisters and brothers, the salvation of the world depends on it.

Our good God I thank you for the salvation that we, in this church, have come to experience through our discipleship to Jesus. I thank you for the salvation that others have experienced in other ways through other means. I thank you that you are big enough and gracious enough to meet any of us where ever we are. Give us the passion and will to grow in your grace and truth. I pray that we as followers of Jesus might know and live daily the mind and love of Christ, in whose name I pray.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Kin-dom authority (A sermon from Mark 1:21-28)

This text is a religious text in a sacred book. Religious texts are metaphorical texts. All of them. That doesn’t mean there are no memories or historical echoes – there surely are. However, historical references or allusions are secondary to the main purpose of sacred texts. I don’t know (and the scholars don’t know either) exactly what pre-modern people in the days of an enchanted universe believed about demonic possession. Maybe it was then like it is now. Maybe there were a number of different views. Who knows? This text has relevance to us as a proclamation of the transforming power of God. I said last week that the kingdom of God – (which I like to call the kin-dom of God, because it’s really about relationships) – the kin-dom of God has to do with the dynamic power of love at work in our world to transform us individually and to transform the systems, organizations, and institutions of society.

In today’s Gospel reading we see the power of the kingdom, which is the power of love, at work in the life, teaching, and authority of Jesus to drive out “unclean” or “unholy spirits.” We all struggle with unclean spirits. I am not talking about little red devils with pitchforks and horns as we might see walking about on Halloween night. I am talking about life-demeaning, life-diminishing forces that we struggle with in our own lives and that sometimes pervade and control the religious, social, economic, and political systems and institutions of the world that we are part of. These life diminishing forces are demonic in the sense that they are anti-human forces – that is, they are forces that work against the good of humanity. Forces like greed, hate, jealousy, envy, prejudice, selfish ambition, and the like are powers personified by the “unclean spirit” in our story.  Sexism, racism, nationalism, materialism, elitism, narcissism, and the like are the demonic, anti-human forces that people of all ages struggle with. And if we are honest, I think all of us would have to admit that there are times when these life diminishing forces possess us. And there are other times when they oppress us. And sometimes they both oppress us and possess us at the same time. When we encounter hate in the other (and the other could be a person or an organization or system), and when we respond to hate with hate, when we react to slander with slander, when we reflect the contempt heaped on us by turning it back on the person or persons or group who treated us with contempt, then we are not only oppressed by the anti-human spirit, we are possessed by it as well.

In our story Jesus is in the synagogue on a holy day when he encounters an unholy, anti-human spirit. Unfortunately, we, too, can encounter these anti-human, unholy forces in Christian persons and institutions just as easily as anywhere else. That’s why authentic and sincere Christian teachers and prophets take a risk every time they tell us the truth.

Dr. Fred Craddock tells about the time he was teaching homiletics and New Testament at a small school in Oklahoma. The school was hanging on by its financial fingernails. The president of the school said to Fred, “I’m in touch with a man who is concerned about improving the quality of preaching in Oklahoma. He has a lot of money and I believe he’s going to give a sizable gift to our preaching program. Will you go with me to talk to him?”

Fred was delighted to go, so he and the president went to visit the man at his office. He was waiting for them and ready to hand over the gift. The man said, “Before we finish this I think we ought to pray.” Neither Fred nor the president prayed. The man prayed. He had the money and he had the prayer. With pen in hand, he was about to sign the check. His lawyer had everything prepared. This was a large donation. But before he signed, he looked up and said, “Now, this all goes for the preaching program?” They said, “Yes sir, that’s what it goes for.” He started to write, but paused again and said, “Now, you do understand, none of this goes for women or for blacks.”

There were a few moments of silence from the shock of that comment. Then, the president stood up. And Fred also stood up. The president said, “I’m sorry, we cannot accept your money under those conditions.” As they started to leave the man spoke up, “Well, there are plenty of schools that will.” And he was right, of course. That man had given over sixty million dollars to schools and churches pervaded by the anti-human spirits/powers of sexism and racism, but not a penny had he given to schools and churches pervaded by the authority of Jesus.

The authority of Jesus to liberate us individually and corporately from these anti-human powers is the authority to inspire, motivate, and empower us to love. The power of the Holy Spirit is the power of love. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love” (5:22). And he says, “The only thing that counts, is faith working through love” (5:6). And once again, in the same letter, he says, “The whole law [the whole requirement of God for humanity] is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (5:14). In his letter to the Corinthians Paul says that of three great principles of the Christian religion, faith, hope, and love, “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). In his letter to the Colossians, Paul (or possibly a disciple of Paul) says, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). In Ephesians he says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us” (5:1-2).  This is from one who formerly, prior to his encounter with Christ, was driven by the anti-human forces of prejudice and hate under the guise of religious zeal and fervor. Being a Christian doesn’t mean diddly squat unless we love.

Love is the authority of Jesus to drive out these anti-human, life diminishing powers at work in our lives and in our society. Our Gospel text says that the people were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, because “he taught them as one having authority, not as the scribes.” Jesus didn’t need the endorsement of the religious establishment, because he had no interest in enforcing the authority of the religious leaders. He wasn’t driven by any need to please the people in power; he was driven by the power of love which gave him the courage to confront and challenge the people in power with grace and truth. That was his authority, the authority to heal and liberate through love. While the religious leaders were into wielding power to control others, Jesus was in to using the power of love to heal and liberate others.

Paul said in one of his letters that the weapons of our spiritual and moral warfare are not the weapons of the world. We don’t rely on the power of violence, but of non-violence and non-violent resistance. We don’t exercise the power of retribution, rather we exercise the power of forgiveness. We don’t yield to the powers of alienation and separation, rather we trust in the powers of restoration and reconciliation. The world calls this weakness and foolishness, for it is the power of relinquishment and self-giving that led to Jesus’ crucifixion by the powers that be. And yet Paul says that the cross, which represents foolishness and weakness to the world, represents the wisdom and power of God for the salvation of the world. It is the power of love that gives us the authority and courage and honesty and will to face the anti-human powers that sometimes possess us and at other times oppress us.    

In our Gospel story the very presence of Jesus provokes an outcry. The very presence of Jesus, who is possessed by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love and justice, exposes and disturbs and provokes the anti-human spirit that is present in the synagogue. The anti-human spirit says (again, this is not historical detail, this is parable and metaphor), “What have you, the Holy One of God, to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” Indeed, he has. Jesus has come to liberate all from the powers that would destroy the loving and the good in human life. Jesus has come as both personal savior and as community liberator. (If I were only to talk about Jesus as personal Savior and not as liberator from systems of injustice, then I would only be preaching half a gospel. And half a gospel is not the gospel.) Why do you think Jesus does these works on the Sabbath intentionally provoking the religious establishment? Jesus has no interest in creating a new religion, even though historically that is what happened. His intention is to reform Judaism, freeing it from the hold of anti-human forces so that Judaism can be a force for good, a force for God’s dynamic movement of love in the world. The anti-human powers cry out in the presence of Jesus because they know they cannot survive in the presence of the holy power of love.

Once there was an old priest who presided over a great cathedral in a once–prosperous city. The kindly priest spent his days praying in the vestry and caring for the poor. As a result of his tireless work, this holy place was known as a place of safety and sanctuary, and a constant stream of people seeking shelter were drawn to it. The priest welcomed all and gave to all completely without prejudice or restraint. His pure heart and gift of hospitality were widely known.  No one could steal from him, for he considered no possession his own.

One evening in mid–winter, while the priest was praying before the cross, there was a knock on the cathedral door. The priest stood, went to the entrance, and to his great surprise, found there a terrifying demon with unyielding eyes. “Old man,” the demon hissed, “I have traveled many miles to seek your shelter. Will you welcome me in?” Without hesitation, the priest bid the devil welcome and invited him into the shelter of the sanctuary. Once across the threshold, the devil spat venom onto the tiled floor and attacked the holy altar, all the while uttering blasphemies and curses. During this rant, the priest knelt on the floor and continued in his devotions until it was time for him to retire for the evening. 

“Old man,” cried the demon, “where are you going?” “I am returning home to rest, for it has been a long day,” replied the kindly priest. “May I come with you,” asked the demon, “for I too am tired and in need of a place to eat and sleep?” “Why yes, of course,” replied the priest, “come, and I will prepare a meal.” On returning to his house, the priest prepared a meal while the devil smashed the artifacts that adorned the house. He ate the meal provided by the priest and then asked, “Old man, you welcomed me into your church and then into your house. I have one more request. Will you welcome me into your soul?” “Why of course,” said the priest. “What I have is yours and what I am is yours.”

So the devil entered his soul, but there was nothing in the old man for the devil to cling to, no material of which to make a home and no darkness in which to hide. All that existed in the old priest’s soul was the light of love. And so the devil turned from the priest in disgust and left, never to return. In fact, the devil, not long after his encounter with the priest, retired from his devilish work altogether, for there was something in the old man that so affected the devil that he lost his edge for his devilish work and had to give it up.

The cure for possession is possession – possession of the authority of Jesus, possession of the the authority to love. Wouldn’t it be great if our hearts and minds and souls would be so full of light that there would no darkness where a demon could hide? Wouldn’t it be great if our lives were so full of love that there would be no room for greed, or prejudice, or envy, or jealousy, or arrogance, or selfish ambition, or any thoughts or feelings of exceptionalism or superiority over others? What if our souls were so full of love that we harbored no ill feelings toward anyone, only a sense of connection and belonging to everyone, knowing full well that we are all one people and one family?

We have the same authority as Jesus. Jesus is simply claiming and employing the human authority that is our birthright as the daughters and sons of God. The authority that Jesus uses to drive out the anti-human spirits/forces is the authority we all have as human beings. Don’t exalt Jesus so high that his life is unattainable. Listen to what Clarence Jordan says. Jordan laments, “Jesus has been so zealously worshiped, his deity so vehemently affirmed, his halo so brightly illumined, and his cross so beautifully polished that in the minds of many he no longer exists as a man. [Jordan is describing me before the crack opened and the light came in.] He has become an exquisite celestial being who momentarily and mistakenly lapsed into a painful involvement in the human scene, and then quite properly returned to his heavenly habitat. By thus glorifying him we more effectively rid ourselves of him than did those who tried to do so by crudely crucifying him” (Essential Writings, p. 33).

When Jesus sends out the twelve he gives them the authority to do what he is doing – to heal the sick and the broken, and to liberate those possessed by and oppressed from the anti-human powers within and without. In doing this Jesus is simply helping them claim and employ the authority that was already theirs.

Sisters and brothers, you have the authority to love like Jesus. For like Jesus you, too, are a holy one of God; you, too, are a daughter and son of God. In you the Holy Spirit dwells. As Paul said, “Your body is a temple of God.” We have the authority to heal the broken and the wounded, whether that be the sickness that is in our own soul or the sickness in a brother or sister, or even the sickness that affects communities and societies. We have the authority to liberate our own souls and the souls of others – individual persons or community systems – from anti-human spirits that would hold us and them in their grip. We have the authority, because the Christ lives in us, and always has, just as the Christ lives in every person, though most are totally unaware.

Sisters and brother, with regard to our own personal lives, with regard to the personal lives of others, and with regard to the political, social, cultural, and religious systems we are part of we have the authority to heal and liberate. We have the authority to exercise the power of love.   

Gracious God, help us see that Jesus is not the kind of personal Savior who does everything for us, but one who shows us how to use the authority you have given us to heal and liberate by calling us to love the way he loved. Forgive us, Lord, for the many ways we have abdicated our authority and failed to trust in your power to love, an authority and power that we already possess as your beloved children. So many of us, Lord, have went by the title “Christian” for so long that it doesn’t mean anything to us anymore or we have turned it into something other than what it originally meant. Help us to see that it’s all about love, that it’s all about mercy and justice, and give us whatever courage and strength and grace we need to speak and live with the authority of the Christ.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Living in the Kin-dom of God (A sermon from Mark 1:14-20)

In the summer of 1942, before the civil rights movement, Clarence Jordan, a Ph.D in New Testament, a Southern Baptist whom Southern Baptists came to hate, on 440 acres of worn out farm land in southwest Georgia launched what he called a “demonstration plot” for the kingdom of God. He named his experiment Koinonia Farm. The Greek word koinonia is the word used to depict the Christian community described in the fourth chapter of the book of Acts that shared their resources and held everything in common so that no one in the community did without. I suppose Jordan wouldn’t have had much opposition if it was an all white community. But this was in interracial community where whites and blacks lived and worked as equals, as family.  

Being a Baptist he was often invited to preach in little Baptist churches, that is, until they heard his message of equality for all people. Then he was rarely invited back. After one sermon where he bemoaned and denounced the country’s practice of segregation, a lady came up to him and said, “My granddaddy was an official in the Confederate army and would not believe a word that you said about race relations.” Jordan smiled sweetly and said, “Well, ma’am, your choice is very clear then. You can follow your granddaddy or you can follow Jesus.” We have the same choice today. We can follow the path of family or we can follow Jesus. We can follow the path of political party or we can follow Jesus. We can follow a religious system or we can follow Jesus.

For Christians it’s all about following Jesus. God can work through other mediators and prophets and teachers, but for us it’s all about following Jesus, or it should be. It’s about following the Jesus of the Gospels who welcomes all people to the table, reaches out to the marginalized and disenfranchised, lifts up the poor, liberates the oppressed, and confronts the injustices of the religious and political powers that be.

Jesus called followers. However, Jesus never preached himself. He did not exalt himself. He preached humility and said that in God’s kingdom the high and mighty would be brought low and the low and humble would be lifted up. Jesus seemed to anticipate a great reversal of the way things are now in the systems and institutions of society. In God’s kingdom the first are last and the last first according to Jesus.

Our text today gets at the very heart and core of the preaching, teaching, healing, reforming, liberating work and mission of Jesus. According to Mark Jesus proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” That is the good news of the kingdom of God. For Jesus to even use the term “kingdom of God” was dangerous and provocative. Palestine was under Roman domination. The Jews were subjects of Rome. Rome knew only one kingdom and only one king. There was no king but Caesar, who went by such titles as “Lord,” “Son of God,” and “God manifest.” All titles attributed to Rome’s king. But Jesus dared to proclaim a different kingdom which called for a different allegiance.

Now let’s talk about that kingdom. The Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) present the kingdom of God as a rather paradoxical, dynamic reality. Even the way it is introduced here is somewhat ambiguous. The kingdom, says Jesus, has come near or we could just as well translate, “is at hand.” What does that mean? Does that mean it’s already here? Or does that mean that it’s about to arrive? Or does it mean something like, “It’s here if you will receive it?” Most mainline interpreters would say, “All of the above.”

In some of the sayings of Jesus the kingdom of God is a present reality. It’s here and now. In other sayings the kingdom of God is a future prospect. In these passages it is a reality anticipated. Some passages speak of entering the kingdom now, other passages speak of enter the kingdom in the future. So . . . Is it now or is it later? Most interpreters would say: It’s both. Some would describe it as “already, but not yet” or “Now, but still future.” That’s part of the paradox.

The kingdom of God is a universal reality. It encompasses heaven and earth. Some Christians would like to make this just about heaven. Because if you do that, then you don’t have to take Jesus too seriously. Now, the fact is that in the Gospels Jesus applied the reality of the kingdom far more to earth than to heaven. The entire Sermon on the Mount is about living in the kingdom of God right now on earth. That whole body of teaching is how we love our neighbor as ourself and how we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. There is no mention at all in the Sermon on the Mount about what to believe, it’s all about how to live here and now. Jesus made this emphasis clear when he taught the disciples to pray what we pray every time we observe Holy Communion: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is heaven. Heaven’s in good shape, life on earth is the problem. The coming of the kingdom is about God’s will being done here and now, on earth as it being done in heaven.

Jesus made it all about love because love is the power to transform persons, communities, and whole societies. Clarence Jordan called the kingdom of God the God movement, and the God movement was, is, and will forever be a movement toward love. If something is not loving then it is not of God. Jesus made this clear when he said that the heart and soul of true religion is to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. On these two commands, says Jesus, hang all the law and the prophets. The whole duty of humankind can be summarized as a responsibility to be loving to God and all people.

So the kingdom of God is about the dynamic, transformative movement of love to transform individuals and whole societies. It’s not one or the other. It’s both – individuals and whole societies. The temptation of conservative Christians is to focus on the individual to the neglect of society. The temptation of liberal Christians is to focus on society to the neglect of the individual. Progressive Christians tend to emphasize both equally and that’s why I’m a progressive Christian. We cannot ignore either. For example, we cannot just focus on our own sins of greed, prejudice, pride, and selfish ambition, without confronting the greed, prejudice, pride, and selfish ambition that control and pervade political, social, economic, and religious systems. On the other hand, we cannot just confront the sexism, racism, nationalism, elitism, exceptionalism, egotism, patriarchalism, and exclusivism within the system without confronting how we ourselves are impacted by these destructive “isms” and how they influence our own personal complicity in these systems.   

On the one hand, the kingdom of God is about the dynamic, transformative movement of divine love within our personal lives to transform our character and conduct, to make us merciful and just, peace loving and forgiving, ever ready and willing to act in compassion toward the one in need and ever ready to speak for and stand with the vulnerable as we confront unjust systems.

On the other hand, the kingdom of God is about the dynamic, transformative movement of divine love within society to make all the systems, institutions, and communities of the world merciful and just, peaceful and forgiving, where all people are treated with equity and fairness, and all have enough not just to survive, but to thrive. This is the Beloved Community Dr. King dreamed of. This is the vision of the Hebrew prophets who long for a day when peace and righteousness cover the earth as the waters the face of the deep. A time when the law of love is written on the hearts and minds of all God’s children. A time when there is no need for weapons – where, in the words of Isaiah “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” When that happens that will be the day the kingdom of God is finally and completely realized on earth. And that seems such a long way off doesn’t it? As I have lamented many times: In the process of our moral evolution as a species, we seem to be stuck in adolescence. The fact that we keep sinning and blame it on original sin is a cop out.

Now the text seems to be saying that right now is the time to enter the kingdom. The time is fulfilled, the time is now to be part of this transformative movement of divine love. And the way the text suggests we do that is by repenting and believing the good news in the context of following Jesus.

Now, I think most of us understand that repenting involves a change of mind and direction, a change in commitments and allegiances, a turning from one way to another way. I think most of us get what it means to repent; but we don’t get what it means to believe. Beleving in the NT tradition is not simply believing doctrines about God. Many Christians want to make about believing doctrines, because then it would be easy. Then we get to be in control and get to say who’s in or out. For some that’s all their Christian faith is about. Believing in the NT tradition is primarily about trusting in and being faithful to God, and the way we do that as Christians is by following Jesus, because for us, Jesus is the face of God. God looks and loves like Jesus. So the more we look like, act like, and love like Jesus, the more we reflect God’s likeness.

We learn from Jesus how to trust in a God of love and compassion. We learn from Jesus how to face our personal sins and failures, and how to confront the systemic injustices of the powers that be. We learn from Jesus how to let go of our little selves, so we can love with a more inclusive love. We learn from Jesus how to turn away from greed and pride and pettiness, so we can live with more honesty, humility, and integrity.  We learn from Jesus how to repent of partisan loyalties, so we can be the body of Christ in the world standing up for and with the disenfranchised and marginalized. In our context today that would be the undocumented persons, especially the Dreamers. It would be our LGBTQ and transgender sisters and brothers, people of color unjustly sentenced in our criminal justice system, or whoever else may be maligned and mistreated by the powers that be. And you know, sisters and brothers, there is almost as much need today for Christians to actually follow Jesus, as there was when Dr. King preached the kingdom of God.  

Clarence Jordan, whom I mentioned earlier, like Dr. King is a powerful embodiment of what it means to live in the kingdom of God. From its inception the interracial community Jordan founded faced opposition and persecution. But the year the U.S Supreme court voted its landmark decision to desegregate schools is when they had to face the reality that their very lives were in serious danger. State Rights councils that were simply fronts for racist strategizing against desegregation sprouted up across the south in reaction to that Supreme Court decision. One in Sumter County was formed with the express purpose of driving out Koinonea. Their express purpose was to shut down that community. Threats grew into life-threatening violence. They faced a massive boycott on all their products and a refusal to sell to them the fertilizer, seeds, and gas they needed to survive. Their roadside market was bombed several times. In January of 1957 after night riders sprayed bullets into the farms gas pumps and then toward the family homes, with some bullets just missing members of the community, the community met for ten days to pray and decide whether to stay or try to relocate. They decided to face their fears and stay, accepting the reality that they may be killed.

A number of kingdom people came to visit them and support them. Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement spent 36 hours on a bus from New York to spend Holy Week and the week preceding it at Koinonia. She took a turn on night watch and was shot at for the first time in her life. When a member of Koinonia heard the gunfire and ran out to see if everything was okay, she found Dorothy trembling and offered her coat. Dorothy said to her, “That ain’t cold, baby, that’s scared.”

Clarence talks about having to face his own fears and his rage. Not the fear he had for his own life mind you, but rather the fear he had for the community members, the parents and children that lived there together as family. He feared for their lives and he had to face those fears. Clarence understood that conversion to the kingdom of God meant radical change in one’s whole way of thinking and living. He knew it involved a radical shift in allegiances and loyalties from the ways of the world to what he called “the principles of the God movement.” And he knew this was not a once-for-all repentance and conversion. He knew that everyday he had to realign his life with those principles and recommit his life to the way of Jesus, and we don’t like to hear this, but the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. Jesus said if we are going to follow him we have to take up our cross too. The members of Koinonea knew that they could be lynched just like Jesus.

Clarence refused to allow fear and anger to consume him. And so through it all he kept his clever wit and hopeful vibrancy. In response to the boycott they started a mail order business. Clarence called on friends around the country to finance, promote, and buy their pecans and pecan products. Their slogan was, “Help us get the nuts out of Georgia.” Clarence learned to turn everything over to God, even the very lives and well-being of the community. And that’s what repenting and believing involves sisters an brothers. That’s what it means to follow Jesus.

Now, let’s just be honest okay. You and I will not take the kingdom of God that seriously. We are not going to follow Jesus that far. And I am not here today to make you or myself feel guilty. (I am preaching to myself as much as anyone.) But you know, sisters and brothers, there comes a time when we awaken to the truth and then we have to ask ourselves: Am I going to live out the principles and loyalties of the kingdom of God? Am I going to speak or am I going to remain silent? Am I going to confront injustice – in my own heart and in the system? Am I going to live in fear or am I going to live by faith? Or am I just going to play around and try to convince myself that God doesn’t really expect that of me?   

Gracious God, inspire us, empower us, compel us to be kingdom people – to dream of a just world and do what we can to see it realized. Help us to love in deed and action. Help us to love inclusively and unconditionally. And maybe one day we will be able to follow Jesus all the way to the cross. In his name I pray. Amen.