I’ve spent some time in church basements and meeting rooms listening to people talk about their church. Faithful and faith-filled people have been part of each gathering. Some people are hopeful; some people are scared; some people have grand plans and visions for the future while others wonder if their community can survive. I’ve sat with colleagues at meetings, lunch dates and coffee shops having similar consultations. In each of the three churches I’ve served as pastor we’ve had cottage meetings, retreats and planning days to think about our work as a congregation and where God is calling us a community.
These conversations are important. The insights shared are helpful. The community-building that takes place as a result of these gatherings creates common vision and understanding. In these discussions we re-center our ministry on the work of being the church – gathering for worship, opening the scriptures, praying together and for the world, and serving in the community. As we meet together we see the need to continue to plan, strategize, and implement necessary steps moving forward into God’s future.
But the church is not the Kingdom of God.
Today in the United States we find ourselves now in government shutdown. Services will not be rendered. Problems worth solving will not be discussed. Decisions will not be made. Paychecks will not be issued. Negative implications will be felt across our nation and throughout the world. We have this notion that America is exceptional. This shutdown and the division that caused it prove we may not be so different from others after all. The finger-pointing and blame issued by both parties only confirms that one is just as corrupt, just as arrogant, and just as incapable of seeing beyond the blind spots in its ideology as the other.
However, even in our state of shutdown our nation does offer things other countries do not. The idea (though not always practically realized) that people can come from anywhere on earth to make this their new home is a uniquely American one. The idea that people are indeed equal in the sight of our Creator (and we pray “please God in the sight of one another too”) is also American. We uphold as our highest value the opportunity to make it or break it on our dreams. The constitutional safeguards that we are free to gather, express ourselves, and worship in a manner of our own choosing are unprecedented in the world. As we see the violence around the world still struggling around each of these ideas; our country, even in the shutdown, remains an exception.
But America is not the Kingdom of God either.
We sit around our tables at home with our loved ones pouring over schedules that have us running in a hundred different directions. We seek new opportunities for each other and we seem to thrive on the hustle and bustle, but beneath our comings and goings we sense our growing disconnection. We grow lonelier the more active we become in all things, and the pursuit of our constant resume building and achievement result in fewer gatherings around that table.
God gives us family, loved ones, community, and connections. But our lives are more than networking and pushing our own influence forward to the next generation. They are about sharing in something greater, holier, and more meaningful – but we can’t put our finger on what that is most of the time. So we run, we over-program ourselves, and what we hope to achieve by doing so we don’t often know.
Loved ones are important and central, but they too are not the Kingdom of God.
Jesus describes the Kingdom often in metaphor – it’s like seed thrown here and there. Some of it grows; much of it does not. The Kingdom is like wheat growing among the weeds. It is like a pearl of great price or treasure buried in a field you’d sell everything to acquire. The Kingdom is like an injured man being cared for by an outsider rather than the upstanding citizens you’d expect. It is like a shepherd leaving the whole flock to find a sheep that’s missing, or a woman sweeping the entire house to find a missing coin. It’s like a father waiting by the side of the road waiting for his run away child, and throwing the grandest of celebrations upon his return. The Kingdom is like waiting for the master to return in the night. It’s being dressed properly for a wedding banquet when the invitation comes, it looks like choosing the lesser seat at a party and being called into a greater place of honor. Entering the Kingdom is knowing that there is a difference between sheep and goats – sheep clothe the naked, heal the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and visit the imprisoned as if each person was Jesus himself; while goats never make the connection.
Jesus opens the Kingdom of God to us, often in the sign of the opposite. He is born to peasants rather than royalty. He confronts the religious establishment rather than solicit their endorsement. He surrounds himself not with a grand army and entourage of the well-connected, but a ragtag group of fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, outsiders, lepers and others whose lives he’s touched and headed. He enters his glory not with a white horse, armor, sword, throne and banners, but on a donkey surrounded by palm branches, the abandonment of friends, and the suffering and torture of death upon a cross. And yet under the sign of death and failure twenty centuries ago – the grave bursts open into our lives, here and now where we are. Jesus is risen from the dead – and so are we.
Entering the Kingdom
What then is the Kingdom of God? It is God continuing to burst into our lives where we least expect it. The Kingdom is new life in the face of death; reconciliation in the face of estrangement, and bringing undeserved welcome, mercy and compassion to others as if we see Jesus face in every other person. The Kingdom is not our churches, it is not our country and it is not even our closest relationships, but the Kingdom continues to break into them all. When we catch glimpses of it, when we grab hold of it, when we participate in God’s ongoing restoration project of this broken world; the Kingdom enters our lives. In the meantime we pray, “Your Kingdom come.” When we see the Kingdom coming – the risen Jesus welcomes us all to the heavenly feast here and now.
There is a seat here for you – where you will never be shutdown again.
Peace, Pastor Geoff
When (Jesus) came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ (Isaiah 61:1-2)
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:16-21)