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Sermon: In the Kingdom of God

A Sermon preached at Christ Church, La Plata & Wayside (Newburg), MD on June 17, 2018
4 Pentecost, Year B (RCL): 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Ps. 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks in parables.  Again.  He does that A LOT!  Jesus frequently uses this literary device to get his point across.  And in this passage from Mark, we hear that Jesus preached only in parables, “as they were able to hear.”

Parables are brief stories that illustrate a specific religious or moral construct, short tales that communicate universal truths.  They aren’t like fables or legends, in that they are true.  But they are also not like nonfiction narratives, in that they are not always strictly factual.

Parables are a kind of extended metaphor, which is one way – and maybe the best way – of grasping the amazing wonder that is God within the limits of our human language.

Today’s parables are about exactly that: the amazing wonder that is God.  Jesus refers to it as the “kingdom of God,” whereas others in our day and time might prefer something more expansive or inclusive.  Some suggest we should call this the “realm” or the “commonwealth” of God – and the Greek of the original text supports this interpretation.

The etymology of the term derives from the word for “base” or “foundation.”  It refers not to territory, as in the Kingdom of Siam, but to dominion, as in a semi-autonomous state that is under the sovereignty of another entity.  Consider that our own Anglican Communion is an example of such a kingdom, for the worldwide assembly of churches in communion with the Church of England – including our own Episcopal Church – is semi-autonomous.  Yet each church is also part of the Anglican family, and all of us are under the sovereignty of God in Jesus Christ.

The kind of kingdom Jesus describes is just like that: it is a kingdom in which the members have choices, the free will to make decisions about their lives, their involvement, their direction, and their future.

And the first choice we get to make is about which kingdom to call our own. You see, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, he is talking about a kingdom inhabited by the righteous, but this kingdom is not the only kingdom.

Jesus thinks the other kingdom – Satan’s kingdom – is not worth a fig, but he acknowledges that it exists.  You may remember just last week, Jesus said, “How can Satan cast out Satan? … If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.”  But make no mistake: the kingdom of evil is real; it’s all around us all the time, and we can be lured by it and sometimes swayed by it.  You see, Jesus knew this was the most obvious kingdom.

The hope, of course, is that God will draw all persons to God’s self, and that everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven.  That is Jesus’ prayer, and that must be our fervent and unwavering prayer as followers of Christ: that everyone will choose to walk the path of righteousness.

But the reality of our world is that some people make other choices.  The examples are ‘legion,’ which you might remember is the name the evil forces give themselves when Jesus asks.  We may remember Timothy McVeigh, the American domestic terrorist who in 1995 chose to detonate explosives outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring over 680 others – rather than serve the poor in the name of Jesus.  Or perhaps you think of Stephen Paddock, the gunman who inexplicably opened fire on a music festival crowd in Las Vegas last October, killing at least 58 people in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history – rather than choosing to serve the least, the lost, and the last who are also members of Christ’s family.

There are many, many others, of course.  And these are extreme cases.  Most of the world will not plot terrorist attacks, commit mass murder, or seek global domination.  But we nevertheless have choices to make.  We can choose the path of righteousness or choose that ‘other’ path.  And we make that choice in big ways and in little ones, repeatedly throughout our lives.  Mostly, thanks be to God, we choose the path of righteousness - we choose to enter the kingdom of God.

But sometimes, we make a different choice.  We all do this, every one of us.  From time to time, we all make the wrong choice.  It is called sin.

We make choices that put our own selfish wishes over the real needs of the community around us.  We make a choice that causes pain to someone else – be it physical, emotional, or spiritual.  We make a choice that belittles other people according to category – be it race, or gender, or disability, or you name it.

In the kingdom of God, we would put aside our own egotistical needs to have power over anyone else, and instead cultivate compassion, cooperation, and understanding.
In the kingdom of God, we would cease all violence, repenting of the evil that enslaves us, and instead promote true dialogue, empathy, and acceptance.

In the kingdom of God, we will bring an end to our own oppression of others, and instead foster open-mindedness, willingness to encounter what is new, and an appreciation for difference – a reach across the divide if you want to bring it to our current political situation.

This is a hopeful vision of a better world, and Jesus offers this to us every day – in his parables, through the sacraments, and by the Spirit that is embodied in everyone we meet.

It seems so very clear.  Kingdom of God: Good.  Kingdom of Satan: Bad. Choose the good and reject the bad.  So why is it that so often we fail to make the right choice?
One reason – perhaps the biggest reason – is fear.  When we are afraid of something, we sometimes choose what is safe over what may seem challenging.

When we are afraid of what we know about some people, we sometimes choose to disparage them rather than take the opportunity to make new acquaintances.
When we are afraid of what we do not know, we sometimes choose to avoid the growth that comes only through learning something new, retreating instead into a cocoon of ignorance.

I am appalled by the most recent news about the plight of families that cross the southern border into this country are being ripped apart.  The Department of Homeland Security says that 1,995 minors have been separated from their “alleged adult guardians” at the southern border in just over a month-long period.  The justification for this practice is the administration’s relatively new “zero tolerance” policy, in which parents have been arrested.  If that wasn’t enough, to defend separating immigrant children from their parents, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions chose to cite Romans 13 in the Bible, saying St. Paul’s command to “obey the laws of the government” because God has ordained them for order is, to put it mildly, using the Word of God for your own purposes!

But according to Mark’s gospel, in the kingdom of God it is “as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”

We do not know how the miracle that is God’s love works, how it grows, or what makes it sprout.  And so, we might respond in fear of the unknown, avoiding confrontation with our shadow side, acquiescing to our darker thoughts, choosing what is safe over what is right.

OR we can respond in hopeful confidence, trusting that God is doing more than we can ask or imagine – even when we cannot see, or refuse to see, or do not comprehend.

A 2009 article in the New York Times titled “What, Me Worry? Putting Some Perspective on Panic,” quoted Harvard professor Kimberly M. Thompson as saying that the problem is that “we’re not taught how to cope with uncertainty.  We tend to want answers to be in black and white without a whole lot of gray.”

Her research shows us that most of us respond to risk and fear through some sort of gut instinct, rather than any sort of analytical calculations.

But so often what we take as “gut instinct” is not being led by God.  As Christians, we are called to study, to pray, and to consider how best to make our choices as we live in the kingdom of God.

We know all the excuses: Sure, it’s wrong to lie, but I was under such pressure!  It was horrible to treat her the way I did, but I was so very angry!  Yes, I am married, but this other person made me feel so good!  I only talked with him/her.  Or - more recently - it’s the law.  We should obey all laws.

The list goes on and on, as well.  Those examples – and every example you all came up with just now ‘cuz I know your minds went there - show us what temptation looks like and what sin is all about: refusing to stop to consider that better choice for the kingdom of God.

And that is what we, followers of Christ Jesus and beloved children of God are called to do: to consider the consequences of our actions, to turn away from evil, and to choose to live in the kingdom of God.

It says in the gospel of Mark today, Chapter Four, that the kingdom of God “is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

What seems like a trivial matter, then, can become the pattern of a lifetime.
The smallest of seeds can become the greatest of all shrubs.
The tiniest of babes, the Son of God, can become the Salvation of the entire World.

And even the nastiest of all Christians can become the greatest of all examples of what it looks like to choose to live in the kingdom of God.

Because that choice comes not once in a lifetime, not ever so rarely, not only now and again.  No, the choice to live in the kingdom of God comes to each of us every hour of every day.

So, let us walk by faith, not by sight, with confidence.  For the love of Christ urges us on.  Everything old has passed away, and in Christ there is a new creation.
That new creation is us. And it is up to us to choose to be part of and build the kingdom of God here on earth, now.

Please pray with me:  To the God of Justice, help us seek the truth in a world so eager to hear only what they are “itching to hear.”  May we seek the truth, speak the truth calmly, and act out of love.  And may our government begin to truly seek the well-being of all children and every family, ending the needless horror of separation.  Amen.