Thursday, January 27, 2011

What is the Kingdom of God?

Sermon delivered Jan 23, 2011
Matt 4.12-23

They called her their troubled one, or their feisty one. She had wild flyaway hair much like that of a punk rocker, but jet-black. And she was only, at the oldest, a couple of weeks old. So small, she looked as if she could fit in one hand. The ICU nurses all took turns trying to comfort her. You could tell they all loved her, even in their complaints about her. Our son Tito, her bunkmate, was recovering from his seven-hour brain surgery. The nurses also love him. This is what the ICU at Seattle Children's Hospital do, they love the kids. For the first few days, her parents were not to be seen, and the nurses protected her privacy, as they should. So we did't know her story. Lace and I added her to our prayers.

We still don’t know her story. What I remember most, though, is how she loved the sunlight and the care the nurses gave to her. I understood that no matter her story, she was in a community of love for the days we would know her, as was our son. The room they shared was fill of windows that let a lot of light in, even in Seattle. A day before Tito was to be moved out of Critical care, her parents, with several of her brothers and sister, did show up. They had to take a long bus trip and they seemed beaten down by life. We prayed for them too. We never knew the end of their story. They were strangers, but still we prayed for them.That is what Christians do.

When the conversation comes up, as rare as this conversation is among church folks, about what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God, we tend to think of wild mountain top castles, or magical streets of Gold. Our imagination goes to visions of a place much like Disneyland. Places without struggles. Many will start to think about an eternal heaven, a place we go after death. The term we use is eternal rewards. In short, it is a place elsewhere from where we live. But what did Jesus mean by the Kingdom of God? Does our vision of Heaven fit what Jesus’ vision? What clues does our text for today give?

In our text, Jesus starts his ministry after John is arrested. To review what came before, Jesus has gone to John to be baptized and then out into the wilderness for forty days of fasting. He is ready to start his ministry. We know were he ends up, on the cross. But where does he start? Without John on the scene, strategically he should start were the action is, where the power is, either Jerusalem or Rome.

He, contrary to good planning, starts were he has lived most of his life, his home. The text says he retreats to his home region, the region of his family, Galilee and proclaims the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. But there? Galilee, the backwater place of not very much importance, was the place that no one thought of much. Why there? Why not in Jerusalem? Rome?

It is like saying you want to change the direction of America and then leave New York not to go Washington DC or Los Angeles, not even Chicago or Seattle but to Spokane. I wonder why he goes from the Jewish religious seat of power, Jerusalem and retreat to the place that nurtured him. Didn’t he know the real power was in Rome or Jerusalem? Would it not be better to start where the real power is. The Kingdom of God in Galilee? The Kingdom of God in Spokane?

He then, the Bible reports, calls two sets of brothers to follow him with promises of being fisherman of men. He calls the brothers where they work with a promise of the Kingdom. Soon, the sick are being healing. The Kingdom, it seems, is a place of healing and excitement. So what is the Kingdom that could drive men to give up their work and follow with no promise of future success, but a promise in the present, a Kingdom that us at hand. The Kingdom, not far off in a long away place, a kingdom they can see if they have eyes. Again, the Kingdom was not only after death, but at hand, Jesus says. When he promises the brothers that they will be fishermen of men, they believed it had to do with the now. If Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of God being at hand are true, then they had a point. Eternal life may extend eternally in the future, but it starts now.

Theologians, rooted strongly in Bible, claim the earthly manifestation of the Kingdom of heaven is the church. But we, rooted in reality of history, this is hard to believe. When we talk about the church, we can only see what is wrong. It does too little; it is hypocritical; it is too insular, it is too certain in its beliefs and paradoxical it is too uncertain in its beliefs. To say the Kingdom of God is best seen in the church has to make us wonder if the Kingdom is dysfunctional at best. Seldom do we say what is right with the church.

Yet most of my best friends I have made have been inside the church. I have made, through the church, friends with millionaires, homeless people, former drug addicts and alcoholics, former gangbangers, Politicians, Germans, Russians, Kenyans, South Koreans, pastors from south central LA. I have prayed with people I would have avoided in another context. Others prayed with me when they would have avoided me in other contexts. When Paul says that master, slave, Jew, gentile man, and women are all one in Christ, it is not an empty boast. I know I have experienced his point.

Many of my most profound moments came within the church, my marriage, connecting with God, the baptism of my son, saying goodbye to my beloved Grandmother, my Abluelita. I know each of you have better understood the Kingdom out of your experience of forging this church. I love the church because I have found love within it. Maybe it is not so far from the truth to say the church is a place where the Kingdom is at hand. But how?

Can the church do a better job of listening to Jesus? Yes, but what do you expect building a community on sinners. Their is a certain problems building with shoddy materials. To follow Jesus is to become fisherman of others throughout our lives. It cannot be a spirituality based on a mountain top, but Jesus is always calling us off the mountain top to the risk of being with others. To love is to join the messiness of family. It is to love sinners.

Dr. Brene Brown, the noted sociologist has found that what we humans need most is to be connected to others, to be known and to know others in a community. In short, we all need love. The dilemma is that she found that in order to find love, we have to vulnerable with each other. It took two thousand years, but Science finally caught up to the truth of the Gospel. Love comes at the cost of the cross. Which knowing how much we are all sinners, should scare the very heck out of you. To be open with others, we surely will get nailed at some point by betrayal, disappointment, and manipulation. To live vulnerable is just asking for it. Right. Yet, that seems the only way to love.The Kingdom is not easy as some suggest.

I realized, after hearing about her work, that Jesus did just that. Not taking equality with the father as the starting point but to empty himself. He made himself vulnerable to the point of the cross. The master of the universe became weak and this is his strength, this is the way of the Kingdom. The point of the picking up our cross as Jesus is to be vulnerable and to risk for the love we so very much need to live. To be fishermen of others is to love others. To find love others in any long term is to make forgiveness our home. We have to be vulnerable with others, risking the nails in the palm. Risk the nails but with God’s love already given.

I, again, learned the meaning of this on Wednesday as I was diagnosed with Glaucoma. I thought now what? Then I learn our friends from Fuller, a young German couple, Benny and Chrissy was also struggling with the Benny’s illness. He had surgery and was now falling into delirium and was at the hospital. Chrissy was alone with their two young children, and his youngest, a two year old, was sick. Chrissy, pregnant with her third, was at her wits end. Benny is a bright upcoming theologian and Chrissy is an accomplished Christian ethicist. I am maybe losing my eyesight and so may my son. And I thought, “Come on, God. Is this anyway to treat your friends.”

That night Lace and I went to serve at Ronald McDonald House. We are Christians and that is what we do. I share my story with some of the people helping and they prayed for me. One the people staying there, a young father with a premature baby in the hospital, over heard and showed concern for my glaucoma. Later, I prayed for our friends so far away, I understood the Kingdom. We love each other when life is pounding in the nails.

Especially, when life is pounding in the nails

So what is the Kingdom? The Kingdom is wherever Jesus is and he is wherever two or more gather in his name. The Kingdom is here right now. We love each other because Jesus. It is there when my family gathers for meals, for nightly prayers of healing and guidance, it was there when everyone here gathered for prayers sending my son off to Seattle. It was with the nurse in ICU caring about stranger’s children. Because Jesus shared himself on the cross, can we share with each other. Because Jesus became vulnerable on the cross, we can be vulnerable with each other and get what we all need most, love. We love because Jesus gave us love; he gave us himself; he gave us the end of the story. And that is the Kingdom of God. Let us drop our nets pick up our crosses and become fishermen and women of love. For that is the Kingdom.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Friends don’t let Friends drink the Blood of the Nation’s Future

Goldman Sachs has a publicity problem. Since Matt Taibbi called Goldman “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”  They have been scrambling to fix it. And then there was the issue of allowing clients betting on the failure of financial products to help create those same financial products doom to fail. That cost Goldman a mere $550 million or about two weeks of profits. With public not happy about the bank bailouts and Wall Street in general, Goldman released a new standard on ethics for the business, which goes beyond simply following the regulations, but complying with spirit as well.

Unfortunately, someone forgot to send those to the division working on Facebook deal. The deal simple is Goldman is giving $450 million to Facebook for the right to sell certain number of private shares. Goldman then created a holding company for those shares to sell them to private investors and circumvent SEC regulation. William Cohan has a great breakdown of the deal. Goldman, indeed, has learn to make a fine profit. So, should we be concerned? Or should we applaud their ingenuity?

First, it must be pointed out that as a bank holding company, they have access to almost interest free loans from the FED. The FED made these loans available to help spur the economy. Added to this fact that Goldman is one of those firms that is deemed too big to fail, and in a real sense the US Tax payer is fitting the bill if the deal goes bad. And what are we getting for insuring this deal? Jobs? Not really. Maybe a few resort jobs to serve the super rich, but hopefully they will be good tippers. Cleaning bathrooms for minimum wage plus tips can’t be that bad. Wealth? Well Mark Zuckerburg has gotten richer off the deal, but with Goldman changing the details of the deal to exclude American investors to further avoid the reach of the SEC, few Americans will see a penny of this deal. Goldman’s tentacles have found a new deep sea well to dig and it our blood on the line.

One can imagine the Old Testament prophet Amos, starting to clear his voice and sing another public song about justice perverted. Yet, as another financial bubble is being inflated, we do nothing. Well not nothing, Congress is fiddling about repealing the Healthcare bill while the Goldman dealmakers burn through our future.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Rule of the Day

A bullet discharged. Then another. And another. And another ... Blood, and a grocery store is transformed from the mundane to the horrible, hell on earth. People lay dead. People lay in hospital holding onto life.

What we know about the shooter so far is that lived in a fantasy of his own creation. Delighted with any whim that struck him, he struck out his self-created pod onto strangers. He hated a woman he did not know. He shot at those unknown to him, even as he remains unknown to us. He now plays the part of crazed killer for us on TV, Blogs, and all of our media. I will not name him, giving him power over his victims: Gabrielle Giffords, Christina Taylor Green, John Roll, Gabe Zimmerman, Dorwan Stoddard, Phyllis Scheck and Dorothy Morris. They should have never have had to have their lives defined by another’s violence. We should remember they all had love ones who are mourning.

Mourning. I remember the start of my last year at Seminary ten yeas ago this September. I remembered the stillness of those days as we stopped for a moment. My then brother-in-law was working near the trader center when the planes hit. He was lost to us in first few hours, only to re-emerge from the dust cloud that had been the pride of New York. We stopped. We look around us past the increasing pace of life. We asked why. We were shocked out of our usual games. One of St Benedict’s rule for spiritual renewal is to keep death in front of you. Those days after the horrible, the rule came to life not only for me but for the whole nation. We paused and reflected on who we were as a people and who we wanted to be. We were shaken out of our individual fantasies to the reality of the fragileness of life. We were kinder to each other, for a little while. It did not last long, perhaps a week or more, but for once we picked up our collective cross.

Now, there is a difference. Not long after the bullets, an opinion was voiced. Then another. And another. And another.... Shattering the silence. Even before the families have mourned, we have not stopped playing our games of who is right and who is wrong. Westboro Baptist Church, that harlot of publicity, is planning to be at the funeral of the victims claiming the shooter a messenger of God, trying to claim what they desire most, the public’s attention. Pundits give us an ongoing scorecard of who can score political points. What will this mean for the new congress? I know many readers at this point have their dukes raised to answer any perceived attack. Let them down for once as Gabriel fights for her life. Lets unclench our fists and clasp our hands in a sign of prayer, at least for a little bit.

Do not misunderstanding me. This is not, “Why can we get along?” post. Today, stop and kiss your child on her forehead, caress your wife or husband, tell your parents you love them. Today stop, and ask not who side will benefit, who is wrong and who is right. But remember the delicate crystal gift that is our small lives. Remember that love is the better portion. Remember that we are all ashes and to ashes we will return. One day for all of us the mundane will become something different.

Friday, January 7, 2011

When God became Vulnerable - A Reflection

A deep sense of connection just might be humanity’s deepest need. We need love as much as water to live. Belonging and feeling known and accepted by our community of neighbors, friends and family seems universal and, unfortunately, so easily manipulated. Street gangs, terrorist cells, child soldiers… there is no shortage of those exploiting this basic need for their own purposes.

But in most those cases the connection and belonging come at a costly price: the absorbing of the individual self into the group identity. The loss of mystery in a desert of harsh certainty makes us empty and unforgiving toward others who question our certainty. No wonder there. If the self is lost into the shallow of the great fish of group think, then even to be curious about the certainty professed by the group is to risk the connection to the group itself. Threaten, we submit to the group rather than be left alone. So, we are left with the devil’s choice. Either be alone, an island onto oneself, hungry for the love we all need, or betray ourselves to the group, trading our true self for a cheap belonging. Yet, is that all there is? How can we navigate between those life destroying cliffs of jagged rocks: on one side killing us with through despair and the other through false self of self deception, which wastes life. Where can love be found?

The question of how to be connected without losing self has been at the center of Dr. Brene Brown’s research. And her work is both enlightening and frightening. She found that the easiest way toward a finding our deepest need and maintaining our selves come from our willingness to be vulnerable. To open ourselves to love is to put down our defenses and admit weakness.


The way of the cross, of understanding our own vulnerability, our nakedness in the world seems to be the universal in finding and navigating love. Vulnerability is the seat of creativity, joy and love, but there are no guarantees. We will probably still bleed, maybe more so. People will wash there hands of us and give us over to be whipped.

I have had to come to grips with this vulnerability. Our son, a toddler of 21 months, has a genetic condition that has required brain surgery last April. ( He will have to have more surgery through his life, and there with no way of knowing how drastic his condition will be throughout his life, I am weak to help him. I offer him prayer and all of the support I can. I am pierced into the crossbeam of pain by own weakness, and bleed nightly for him. And yet, he brings me so much joy. Being vulnerable means accepting my own weakness and loving him as much as possible, without knowing the future. We are alive together as we, my wife, my son and myself, have journeyed through this medical wilderness. We have not been alone; there have been great dedicated doctors, (and some rather poor ones as well) loving friends, family, church community and so many that I could spend a year thanking all of those who have shown kindness. Yet, the pain of life remains.

Jesus, God incarnate, came into this world as a vulnerable baby. He left nailed on a cross. He returned in the blinding glory of Grace. I have learn that there is a strength in be vulnerable, the strength of Jesus’ cross. It has left me wondering if there could be a politics of vulnerability. Could there be a politics based on risk, love, of fully following Jesus. Between the shadows of despair and the darkness of deception is a little baby with three wise men bowing down in reverence. To be vulnerable is to look at the cross.

As our country has been force to look at its own vulnerability in economics, politics and future, we may need to embrace the gift of the cross. Resurrection comes through the cross that transcends our political bickering, and the only way is the way of loving enemy. Democrats would have to love Republicans. Republicans would have to love Democrats. Not easy, but Jesus never promised that the cross would be easy only that it is the way to true life.