Readings for the Second Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)
Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17
This sermon was preached at Church of Our Saviour Episcopal Parish in San Gabriel CA on Sunday June 14, 2009.
This year, I had the privilege of celebrating Palm Sunday at a little place called St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Considered to be “the greatest of all churches in Christendom,” the Basilica certainly does not disappoint her pilgrims with her awesome enormity and overwhelming beauty, not to mention Michelangelo’s famous Pieta and Bernini’s twisted baldacchino (the largest bronze structure in the world.) Personally, my favorite sculpture was the enthroned St. Peter who held the key to the Kingdom of God. Pilgrims have been coming from all over the world for the last several centuries to touch and kiss the Apostle’s feet. As a result, his feet have eroded into those of a deformed platypus. (Seriously.)
As I celebrated Palm Sunday with St. Peter’s 264th successor, Pope Benedict XVI, I had to ask myself, “What is the Kingdom of God? Is this the Kingdom of God?” Before the procession began, men and women were running, pushing and shoving in order to get a good seat, close to the pope. One mother burst out in tears, begging to bring her son closer. Younger women were using their feminine wiles on the Swiss soldiers to get a chance at the papal blessing. And one young girl nearly fainted! I couldn’t tell if I was at a church service or a U2 concert. (Not that those two things are always mutually exclusive).
When the pope processed through the crowd I felt like I was at a Roman Victory Rally and Julius Caesar had just conquered Gaul. People were cheering; flags were waving, and palms fronds were flying.
Is this the Kingdom of God?
During the passing of the peace, most people just looked uncomfortably at each other. The only ones making contact were a few Italian couples who have no problem publicly displaying their affection for one another in excess.
Is this the Kingdom of God?
Because I was not close enough to the pope, I did not get to receive a holy wafer. And because I did not understand much Italian, I did not understand his sermon. However, I did learn that he ended his sermon by praying, “May his Kingdom increase in us and around us.”
I left the Palm Sunday service feeling strange and confused. And then after paying 5 Euro for a Gatorade by the Vatican City entrance, I felt frustrated and wanted to overthrow the newsstand yelling, “You have turned God’s house of prayer into a den of thieves!” But I didn’t.
Instead, I just kept thinking to myself, “What is the Kingdom of God? I sure hope it’s not this.”
And then I realized that I missed Church of Our Saviour. I missed you guys. I missed the acolytes, the coffee cake, the familiar faces, and, of course, our use of the English language. Please hear that as a compliment. When I was at the “greatest of all churches in Christendom” on Palm Sunday, I missed being at Church of Our Saviour in San Gabriel.
So what is the Kingdom of God?
I spent some time at Fuller wrestling with this question. New Testament Professor Marianne Meye Thompson pointed out how tragic and problematic it is that so few Christian ministers understand what the Kingdom of God actually is since it was absolutely central to Christ’s ministry. However, even Dr. Thompson could not fully explain what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God.
So in the context of today’s lectionary readings and my own life experience, I will share with you my current understanding of the Kingdom of God, even as I continue to grow in understanding.
In one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Jesus urges his followers not to worry about what they will eat or drink or about what they will wear or even about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself. Instead of worrying, Jesus exhorts his followers to seek the kingdom of God; and in seeking the kingdom, all these things that cause us to worry will fall into place. Ironically, I wonder how many students of the New Testament have lost sleep and have suffered from increased anxiety in their efforts to figure out what in the world the kingdom of God actually is. I will certainly count myself among these.
Nonetheless, Jesus calls his followers to seek the Kingdom of God first. This seeking should be our first priority. At the same time, Jesus seems to talk about the kingdom of God the way Lao Tzu talks about the Tao and the way Zen Masters speak about Zen, using parables and metaphors and sometimes, cryptic anecdotes.
In the Gospel reading today, we encounter two of these parables. Jesus says the Kingdom is like a farmer who scatters seed then goes to bed while the seed does its thing. The farmer does not know how it sprouts and grows, but when it’s done, the farmer reaps the benefits. And then he says the Kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed that grows up to become a shady home for birds.
When my roommate Ed heard that I was preaching on this Gospel passage, he said, “Oh that’s a great passage for a Youth Minister!” Being a youth minister himself, Ed explained that most of our work involves planting the Gospel seed in the soil of young souls. Inspired by the farmer in the parable, Ed was actually considering changing the format of his Sunday School so that the first half is him sharing the Gospel while the second half is him sleeping, thus allowing God enough time to grow the seed he just planted. I’m not sure he ever tried it.
So the Kingdom of God is like a plant or tree. In Jewish literature, the image of a tree is often used to symbolize a king or ruler. We encountered this same imagery in Ezekiel 17 when Yahweh deposed Nebuchadnezzar’s vassal king Zedekiah saying, “All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.”
Jesus is describing the Kingdom of God by using royal imagery, which leads me to believe that the Kingdom of God is exactly what it says it is: a territory ruled by God!
That’s it! And, in fact, that is exactly what it meant to those listening to Jesus. First-century Jews in Palestine were an exiled people awaiting a Messiah, who will overthrow the foreign ruling powers, gather those scattered by the Diaspora, and restore Israel as a mighty kingdom chosen and blessed and ruled by God.
“Jewish hope,” Wright elaborates, “was concrete, specific, and focused on the people as a whole. If Pilate was still governing Judaea, then the kingdom had not come. If the Temple was not rebuilt, then the kingdom had not come.”
Also embedded in the phrase “the kingdom of God” was the Jewish hope that Yahweh would not only rule over Israel, but over all the earth. In the ears of Jesus’ first-century listeners, “the kingdom of God” meant the future reign of Yawheh over Israel and the whole world.
So that’s the answer! But like any good answer, it brings up a whole new cornucopia of more questions. Is the Kingdom here now? Is the Kingdom coming? How do we seek the Kingdom? How do we become a part of it?
Marcus Borg states that the kingdom of God “is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers of this world were not.” The Kingdom of God cannot be fully here now since millions still suffer and Gatorade still costs 5 Euro at the Vatican newsstand.
So how do we bring the Kingdom of God here on earth? Many of Jesus’s listeners thought the answer was force, a violent overthrow of the reigning power. This is what got Jesus in so much trouble and eventually crucified. When the Roman government heard the phrase “Kingdom of God” they thought of rebellion and revolution and terrorism. Jesus and his followers were a potential threat to the State. But what got Jesus in even more trouble was that he chose not to bring about the Kingdom through violence. Those who hoped Jesus would overthrow Rome violently were thoroughly disappointed and were therefore not afraid to scream, “Crucify him!” when he was on trial. Jesus failed to meet their expectations. Jesus refused to bring about the Kingdom of God in the way the Jewish people hoped.
In these parables of sowing seeds and making shady homes for birds, Jesus is trying to get his disciples to understand how the Kingdom of God is coming. Jesus is trying to teach his disciples to think like the Psalmist of Psalm 20, to put their trust “not in chariots and horses, but in the LORD.” Jesus is inviting his disciples to no longer see from a human point of view, but in the words of St. Paul, “to be transformed into a new creation.”
And continually, I am being transformed. Continually, I am learning to see the way Jesus wants us to see. Continually, I am putting to death those parts of me that trust in chariots and not in the LORD, that look on outward appearance rather than the heart. It is a difficult and sometimes very painful process. But in the process, I hold onto what I consider the key to the Kingdom of God, the key to understanding and becoming a part of the Kingdom of God…
What keeps me at the feet of Jesus, what keeps me on this crazy quest to live according to the teachings of this radical Jewish Rabbi is what we read in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “For the love of Christ urges us on.” The love of Christ urges me on. Knowing that I am fully and unconditionally loved through this whole process of transformation is what urges me on. Basking in Christ’s compassion as I let go of my attachment to force, violence, power and prestige is what urges me on. And in allowing the love of Christ to urge me on, I come to find myself in the Kingdom of God for the Kingdom is the realm in which God rules, the territory in which Love reigns. The Kingdom of God is any territory in which the Voice of Love reigns supreme over all other voices. Internal and external voices that condemn us or ridicule us or reject us or lead us to violently seize power all submit to the Voice of Love in the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus described the Kingdom as an internal reality (Luke 17:21), he was referring to the heart that is ruled by the Voice of Love. When Jesus prayed for the Kingdom to come, he was looking forward to the day when the whole world will be ruled by the Voice of Love. And when Jesus healed the sick, exorcised the demons and fellowshipped with sinners, he was speaking the Voice of Love with such authority that all other voices trembled in submission.
And what is the Voice of Love? It is the divine voice which speaks to all those who have ears to hear, saying, “You are my highly favored child of whom I am so proud. And you are an amazing wonder in whom I find joy and pleasure. I believe in you and I empower you to believe in yourself. I love you and I inspire you to love. I see sacred beauty and heavenly potential in you. I see myself in you.”
Sometimes the Voice begins as still and small like the gentle whisper that Elijah heard on Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:12) or like the tiny mustard seed about which Jesus spoke (Mark 4:30). Yet the Voice of Love is as persistent as the Voice of Love in George Herbert’s famous poem.And when we let the Holy Spirit fertilize the Voice of Love inside of us and around us we bring the Kingdom of God into our hearts and into the world. We bring heaven to earth.
This Voice of Love does not rule by force or violence. At the same time, the voice of Love is not a therapeutic self-esteem boost meant to tranquilize us. Desmond Tutu described the voice of Love when he said, “God loves me as I am to help me become all that I have in me to become…those who think this opens the door for moral laxity have obviously never been in love for love is much more demanding than law.”
When we let the voice of Love rule our hearts and our homes, our churches and our communities, we begin to live into the pacifism that Evelyn Underhill wrote about, the ubuntu spirituality that Desmond Tutu displays and the ahimsa which Bede Griffiths and Gandhi embodied. And we begin to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”
As a finite human being, I really do not feel qualified to talk about eschatology or to speak about the end times with any kind of certainty. But when I say that I believe in the “life of the world to come,” I am saying that I believe in a time when Yahweh reigns over the earth. I believe in a time when God’s love is the ultimate authority, when the love of Christ, which was planted in my heart, grows and spreads and even provides shade for others. I believe in a time when every knee bows to love and we become the beloved community.
I remember asking the Rev. Charles Sacquety over a delicious steak dinner what he thought the Kingdom of God was. He said, “The beloved community of course.”
So let us invite the Voice of Love to reign in our hearts and in this community. And may we put all other voices of violence, self-hate, arrogance, prejudice and oppression under submission to this Love.
In conclusion, let us listen to the persistent Voice of Love in George Herbert’s famous poem, the persistent voice that I believe will someday reign supreme:
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.