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.


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