Kingdom Come 11/26/17

Kingdom Come
Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
November 26, 2017 ~
Reign of Christ Sunday


“Lord,” teach us how to pray, say the disciples in Luke’s Gospel. He replies:

“When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Luke 11:2-4)

A slightly longer version of this prayer, which we’ve come to know as the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father, is also found in the Gospel of Matthew. The two have much in common. For today’s purposes, I’m drawn to the second phrase in each version: Your kingdom come.

Jesus and the Jews of his day knew all about kingdom. They lived under the heavy hand of the Roman Empire. And, like all people, they wanted to be free of domination and oppression, and they wanted to live on their own land. The struggle with how to live within – or under – the Roman Empire elicited at least four responses from the Jews at the time of Jesus. Should they violently rebel, as the Zealots demanded? Or should they assimilate as best they could and accept Roman rule, as the Herodians advocated? Maybe they should retreat altogether and form their own communities in the desert, far from civilization and far from Roman rule, as the Essenes did. Or maybe the Pharisees had it right: maybe they should strive for religious purity in the hopes that better and more pious behavior would convince God to deliver them from Roman oppression and occupation.

They longed, in other words, for God’s rule to replace the Roman’s rule. And they expected that rule to come with power and might, overthrowing Rome in the same way all other empires had been overthrown throughout the ages – which is to say, politically, militarily, and thoroughly.

Into this setting walked Jesus, and he delivered a radical message: the Kingdom of God will be nothing like the Kingdoms – the Empires – we’ve known on earth. It will be utterly, spectacularly different. And it will come in a completely unexpected and unfamiliar way. It is for the arrival of this Kingdom that Jesus taught his disciples to pray.

Understanding just what Jesus’ Kingdom is was not easy for those Jesus encountered; nor is it necessarily obvious to us today. In a passage in the Gospel of John, Pilate confronts Jesus. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he demands. Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Scholar John Dominic Crossan says:

[Had] Jesus stopped after saying that “my kingdom is not of this world,” as we so often do in quoting him, that “of” would be utterly ambiguous. “Not of this world” could mean: never on earth, but always in heaven; not now in present time, but off in imminent or distant future; not a matter of the exterior world, but of the interior life alone. Jesus spoiled all those possible misinterpretations by continuing with this: “if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered” up to execution. Your soldiers hold me, Pilate, but my companions will not attack you even to save me from death. Your Roman Empire, Pilate, is based on the injustice of violence, but my divine kingdom is based on the justice of non-violence. [1]

That just non-violence is lived out in acts of love and compassion, and it begins with those whom society – Empire – has deemed of little worth, of no account. The Kingdom comes first to those who do not matter to Empire.

So it is that Jesus’ kingdom looks like this:

the hungry are fed and given something to drink in a spirit of abundant generosity;
the stranger is welcomed without fear of the unknown;
the naked are clothed without judgment of their poverty;
the sick are cared for with compassion and dignity;
the imprisoned are visited regardless of guilt or innocence.

In God’s kingdom, justice, peace, compassion, and wholeness are paramount. And those goals are directly in opposition to the power-mongering and oppressive goals of Empire.

It must be said that we know about Empire too. We live in it every day. It is the doctrine of American exceptionalism and triumphalism. It is the worship of capitalism and the military industrial complex. It is the devotion to wealth, fame, and political power. It is all of the systems both obvious and hidden that are designed to keep those “at the top” in control, thus perpetuating Empire ad infinitum. And religion – particularly today’s Christianity – is all tied up in Empire. This is not new; Christianity aligned itself with Empire when Constantine wielded his sword across Britain, Gaul, and Spain in the 4th century, and it continues to do so.

Many would argue that America is the new Roman Empire.

To say that America is an Empire – the New Rome – is not new. In 1858, Oliver Wendell Holmes announced that “we are the Romans of the new world – assimilating people. Conflicts and conquests are of course necessary accidents with us, as with our prototypes.” And in 1860, Walt Whitman wrote a poem that said, “I chant the new empire, grander than any before – As in a vision it comes to me; / I chant America, the Mistress – I chant a greater supremacy…” [2]

The way of Empire is never the way of justice. After all, the top priority for Empire is to stay in control, to keep the power. This means that some people must be kept out of power, be refused control. They must be subjugated and subdued. Furthermore, to keep its reign, Empire must take power away from those who cry out for justice. It has been said that Empire has many tools to reach its goals, the three most powerful of which are: fear, violence, and division.

We’ve seen a lot of all three of those lately, haven’t we?

If the Kingdom of God whose coming we pray for week after week is unlike the Empires of humanity, then likewise Jesus is no Caesar. His is not military might, but tenderness. His is not power-over, but power-with as he walks beside humanity even in the darkest valleys. His power is not in subjugation, but in guidance and liberation. His power is not in stepping on others in a rise to the top, but in stopping at the side of the road to take care of the wounded and leaving of all that has been acquired in order to seek out the one who is lost. No Jesus the King is not Caesar; he is a shepherd.

Ezekiel tells us about God as shepherd when he tells us that God says:

I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak… (Ezek. 34:11-16)

I like to think of myself as someone who is seeking justice, who is working to overthrow Empire. I like to think that I’m one of the good shepherds. But I’ve learned to be wary whenever I find myself too easily aligned with Jesus or his message. It usually means I’m missing something.

In her writings about Kingdom versus Empire, Rev. AhnnaLise Stevens Jennings reminds us that even we who like to think of ourselves as aligned with Kingdom rather than with Empire can far too easily fall into a trap. She writes:

[Those who want to see Empire fall and the Kingdom of God come into full glory] have started trying to use the tools of the Empire to dismantle the Empire, but as Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Well-meaning, justice-seeking people have used fear, violence, and division while attempting to bring about an end to injustice. When we dehumanize those who disagree with us, we are using the master’s tools. When we let fear control our actions and thoughts, we are using the master’s tools. When we divide ourselves from those with whom we disagree, we are using the master’s tools. When we intentionally cause division out of the fear that our goals will not be met, we do not move towards justice, but away from it. [3]

Here’s the thing I’m trying to wrap my mind around this week. In the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that everyone is surprised. Those who served the least of the members of his family didn’t know that’s what they were doing; they did what they believed was right without knowing that God was the one they were serving. And those who didn’t serve the least also didn’t know that God was the one who they weren’t serving.

God shows up where we least expect God to be.

Even among those people who we don’t like, whose religion offends us, whose politics infuriate us, whose injustices and oppressions and cruelty make us want to scream. Yes, even them.

When we – when I – refuse to see God in the ones we most stridently disagree with, I am falling into the trap of Empire. In my fear that justice will never be done, I find myself resorting to divisiveness and the demonization of those who I am convinced “are just plain wrong.” And it makes me want to fight – perhaps not with my fists or with a weapon, but certainly with my furious words and aggressive behavior. It’s hard to be compassionate and shepherd-like with those who I believe are being uncompassionate and un-shepherd-like! I have been guilty of an Empire-like attitude and approach to the world and people around me over and over again in the last year.

That said, we must never cease working for justice and furthering the causes of the Kingdom of God rather than those of Empire. The question is: which the tools will we use?

We’re headed into the season of Advent, the season of already-but-not-yet, which is to say: with the birth of Jesus, God has come into the world. The Kingdom has arrived. But at the same time, we know that the Kingdom hasn’t fully arrived. We need only look around for the briefest of moments to know that the new world order of peace and justice has not come to its full realization.

Jesus enjoins us to trust that even though the powers and principalities still seem to rule the world, a new truth has begun. Over and over again he says it: “the Kingdom of God (or Heaven) is at hand”; “the Kingdom is among you.”

Author and church leader Brian McLaren sums up Jesus’ message like this:

The radical revolutionary empire of God is here, advancing by reconciliation and peace, expanding by faith, hope, and love – beginning with the poorest, the weakest, the meekest, and the least. It’s time to change your thinking. Everything is about to change. It’s time for a new way of life. Believe me. Follow me. Believe this good news so you can learn to live by it and be part of the revolution. [4]

I confess that I don’t like “king” language, I don’t like conquering language, I don’t like war imagery. But this revolution – this revolution of love and justice and peace achieved through the methods of love, justice and peace – is a revolution I want to be a part of. The King is in his Kingdom, and that Kingdom is at hand.

Thanks be to God.

[1] John Dominic Crossan, Prologue, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now.

[2] see Crossan.

[3] Ahnnalise Stevens Jennings, “Kingdom vs. Empire.”

[4] McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus. pp. 32-33.

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