January 23, 2011

Matthew 6:9 & Luke 17:20-25

“Thy Kingdom Come”

Today is the fourth of a ten-week sermon series exploring the rich and multifaceted Lord’s Prayer.

To hear today’s sermon podcast click here: 110123SermonPodcast

Rev. Allen V. Harris

Franklin Circle Christian Church

Hyacinthe Rigaud's portrait of Louis XIV of France

One of my first real experiences with what a king was and what it meant to be “kingly” was in the fourth grade.  We were putting on a play for the class – I don’t even remember now what the play was – and I was chosen to play the part of the king.  Now, one could say that my eagerness to create a costume for the king, with a royal crown and regal cape, was either my early understanding of the majestic stature of monarchs, or a sure fire determination that I was a gay boy!  In any case, I distinctly remember fashioning a crown from a cut out piece of cardboard and covering it with foil and then dying a bed sheet purple which

Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom

my mother had given me (how on earth did I know at such a young age that purple was the ancient color of royalty???).  I then sewed small plastic fake gemstones I had found onto the edges of the fabric.  I knew what it took to be king: the wardrobe!

Seriously, where on earth do we come to understand what a “king” is?  It can hardly be from our own experiences, as we do not live in a nation with a king.  There are only about 40 nations in the world that still have monarchies, and the vast majority of them are ceremonial only.  Only five countries, by my count, still have absolute monarchies.  So, if it is not by lived human experience that we come to know what royalty is, where do we learn?

Well, I would say looking back on my childhood, I m

The Lion King

ostly learned who kings and queens, princes and princesses were from storybooks.  I was still too young to have read about the intrigues of King Arthur’s court, but there were dozens and dozens of fairy tales, legends, and fables about queens and kings.  I’m also certain many cartoons and animated features informed me of the stately regalia and somber responsibilities of royalty.  Of course, for those of us alive in the ‘90’s we have been saturated with the Lion King phenomenon in which Disney embedded into our minds Simbah’s tentative, but certain, rise to power above the African plains. (Although one young girl at the last church I served insisted on singing at the top of her lungs, “I just can’t wait to be QUEEN!”)

But those of us well versed in scripture and those of us who have been a part of the church know another place that informs and sustains our understanding of royalty, particularly kingship.  The struggle of the Hebrew people in following a mighty, but unseen God-As-Monarch, is well documented.  And the eventual selection of David as an earthly King forms one of the central, not to mention compelling, narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures.  The rise and fall of such earthly Kings meant that there would necessarily be a steady lineup of prophets to keep those earthly kings in check, from Isaiah to Amos, Jeremiah to Hezekiah.

And then, as the Gospels announce, one who was born “once in Royal David’s city,” would become the new model for God’s reign on earth, one who spanned * heaven and earth like no other: Jesus.  And this Jesus would talk about kingdoms not of this world, and would refer time and time to the “Kingdom of God.”  “Basileia Tou Theou” in Greek, although Greek is the language of the New Testament writers and was not the common Aramaic that Jesus and his followers would have spoken: Malkuth or Malkuthakh.  (Hebrew was reserved for the clergy and spoken only in the temple.)  Even so, both basileia and malkuth share the same meaning: kingship, kingly rule, reign, or sovereignty. (1)

But, as Jesus was prone to do, his understanding of guidance, authority, and leadership was unlike anything that had come before, or has come since. In the words of one writer, “Although the concept of the rule of God over God’s people had a long history in the Old Testament, it underwent a radical mutation on the lips of Jesus.” (2)  Jesus’ emphasis on “the Kingdom of God” was less about territory and more about relationships.  Yes, Jesus was talking about a radical transformation of we human beings and of our institutions (social, political, economic, and religious) to better represent the character and nature of God.  But it was also about transforming how we live and how we relate one to one another.  Jesus was intent on nothing less than transforming our hearts, something no earthly queen or king could ever hope to do.

Prof. Walter Brueggemann & Allen V. Harris

Walter Brueggemann, my favorite biblical scholar and teacher, explains what Jesus was about as he taught this earth-shaking, kingdom-busting vision of God’s reign on earth and in the hearts of all humanity.  He reminds us of the “prophetic imagination” of Jesus.  “The task of prophetic ministry,” he writes, “is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”  What he means is that Jesus’ birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection were meant first and foremost to challenge prevailing thinking and upset common assumptions. (3)

And here, Brueggemann says something that I think is at the core of Jesus’ use of “kingdom” language:  “The task of prophetic ministry is to hold together  criticism and energizing, for I should urge that either by itself is not faithful to our best tradition.”  And then, he goes for the jugular of our contemporary cat-fights in religion and politics, when he reminds us that “Liberals are good at criticism, but often have no word of promise to speak; conservatives tend to future well and invite alternative visions, but a germane criticism by the prophet is not forthcoming.”  He finishes by putting forth that the cross is the ultimate metaphor of criticism and the resurrection of

Velazquez's Crucified Christ

Jesus is the ultimate energizing for the new future.” (4)

So, let me bring this back around to the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus has already confronted several of our precious idols when he reminds us God is “our” Father and not “MY father;” when he speaks to God both intimately as “daddy” and respectfully as the One whose name must be hallowed.  Here, in public, he now refers to “Thy Kingdom Come.”  In this one simple and seemingly unassuming phrase, he both puts the powers that be on notice AND he invigorates the people.  What a deal!  In Brueggemann’s words, he both criticizes AND energizes.  How does he do that?  Let me tell you.

By designating it as Thy Kingdom, Jesus immediately tells the Roman Empire and Ceasar that their rule will soon come to an end and one who is far greater will be in charge.  Jesus also reminds us, yet again, that it will not be my kingdom or queendom, that we as followers must get in line, let go of our controlling passions and get a grip on our authority issues.  This will be God’s reign:  Not Caesar’s, not the President’s, not the Speaker of the House’s, and certainly not ours.  We’re entering God’s dominion, and God’s alone.

Is there any doubt as to why Jesus was dragged before the ruling authorities for sedition and treason?  He was usurping not just this ruling government, but all that had come before and all that would come after.  All earthly powers could not and cannot help but see this as a stinging critique of who they are and what they do.  Yes, we need governments and laws in order to manage our day-to-day affairs, but they will never transform both our social order and our hearts!  They can’t!  But the Reign of God CAN!

And this takes me to Professor Brueggemann’s second point.  Jesus said, “Thy Kingdom come!”  Jesus made it clear that this new order of life was breaking in on us as he spoke, literally with that very breath.  This is not some future “come-and-get-it-day.”  We have to live as citizens in God’s commonwealth in the here and now.  In Luke 17 Jesus mocked those who were looking for signs, bells and whistles or fire and brimstone, for the Kingdom of God to come.  “Look, here it is!”  Jesus mimics.  “Look, there it is!” Jesus teases.  Rather, Jesus tells us “the kingdom of God is among you.”  That word “among” means so many powerful things: within you, inside you, in the midst of you.  John the Baptist had prepared us for this very truth when he preached, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”  God’s blessed community is approaching, drawing near, is literally at arms length.

What does this mean, then, that Jesus’ own prophetic imagination called him to announce “Thy Kingdom Come?”  It means that we should be very wary of becoming comfortable with the way things are, and that a critique of the powers that be is always appropriate and necessary, especially today.  Likewise, it means that we need to be living as if, and treating one another as if the Realm of God has already broken in upon us – because it has!

And in this regard, and as my last point, I want to challenge us to take what Jesus has taught us and move beyond it.  I say this because I believe that the language Jesus used, while prophetic and compelling in his day, no longer serves to criticize and energize.  In 1st century Palestine to announce “Thy Kingdom Come” meant something dramatic and holy, but it no longer does in our day.  When most of us know about Kings from fairy tales, fables, legends, and cartoons, we have got to find language that reimagines and restores the powerful preaching of Jesus.  Two images come to mind, although there are most likely many others.

Dr. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz

The first was set forth by the Cuban, now American, Latina theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz.  She takes the actual language of “kingdom of God” and, in what is both a play on words and a brilliant theological move, she restates Jesus’ prophetic call to the “kin-dom” of God.  Still understanding this as a critique on the powers that be and an energizing call to begin living into God’s envisioned future, she reminds us that ultimately we are all kin, one to another, sisters and brothers, hermanas y hermanos, in the great familia de Dios.  She explains this phrase as both a critique of the sexist word “kingdom,” which assumes God is male.  News Flash: God is not male.  But the phrase “kin-dom” also moves us away from the hierarchical and elitist images that many, if not most of us have when we hear the word “kingdom.”  (5)

The Gospels, and the Epistles following, remind us time and time again that we get sidetracked quickly if we are expecting Jesus to act as a King like we know and have come to expect Kings, Queens, and Monarchs of all types to behave.  He didn’t and he won’t because Jesus was the in-breaking in a new kind of community, one where we are co-creators with God, one where we are all kin to one another: “Who is my mother and who is my brother but those who do the will of God,” Jesus implored.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King 1964

The second image is from the great American Preacher and Human Rights Activist many of us honored last weekend, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King, borrowing a phrase that he learned from philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, as part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, called us to live as part of “The Beloved Community.”  This, to me, is the ultimate critical and energizing image of what Jesus meant by “Thy Kingdom Come,” for our day.  “For Dr. King, the Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony.  Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.” (6)

This is what Jesus was calling us to!  To live in harmony in community as if God’s love, God’s power, God’s wisdom, God’s comfort, God’s sustenance, God’s righteousness were all we needed.  To see each other already as citizens of the Commonwealth of God.  We’ve all got our papers!  And if our sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and strangers do not act as if they are living in the Beloved Community, it is because they have not yet seen and their hearts have not yet know what it means to live in the Beloved Community.  It is our joyful job, our wonderful work, our terrific task to help love them into the Beloved Community.  This love is at the heart of Jesus’ understanding of what God was calling us to be, and Dr. King knew that when he spoke of agape love, which is an “understanding, redeeming goodwill for all,” and an “overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative.”  The “love of God operating in the human heart,” so central to living in the Beloved Community “does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people…  It begins by loving others for their sakes” and it “makes no distinction between friend and enemy” but is directed toward both. (7)

My beloved congregation, let us all pray “Thy Kingdom Come,” and by doing so, announce to the world that we believe and intend to live as if “The Kin-dom of God” is a realty, and “The Beloved Community” is in our midst.

May it be so!

Amen.

(1) “The Reign Of God” at the Following Jesus web site, created by Kurt Struckmeyer

from: http://www.followingjesus.org/vision/reign_god.htm

(2) Ibid.

(3) From: The Prophetic Imagination, by Walter Brueggemann, FORTRESS PRESS; 2nd edition (June 1, 2001)

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, from her article, “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 1980s,” in Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside, edited by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and Mary Potter Engel (San Francisco: Harper, 1990), 31-40, 303-305. and later “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 21st Century” Orbis Books; Rev Exp Su edition (November 2, 1998)

For more biographical information on Isasi-Diaz, go to: http://www.users.drew.edu/aisasidi/bioInfo.htm

(6) The Beloved Community Of Martin Luther King, Jr., from the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia.  Found online at: http://www.thekingcenter.org/ProgServices/Default.aspx

Root website: http://www.thekingcenter.org

(7) Ibid.

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