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. 

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