The Kingdom of God for Kindergarteners – a sermon

You can listen to today’s sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

The people of Israel were hungry for the word of God. As
Father Keith mentioned in last week’s sermon, it had been more
than 400 years since God had raised up a prophet to speak on his
behalf. 400 years is a really long time for God to be silent, and
so the people of Israel, oppressed by the Romans and
overburdened by their own religious leaders were starving to
hear a word of hope from God when news of John the Baptist
started to swirl. Though Luke tells us it all happened “In the
fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius
Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee…
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,” John the
Baptist actually arrived on the scene way outside of the seat of
power. Down the mountain, deep in the valley, out in the
wilderness there was a man named John, clothed in camel hair,
with a left-over locust wing stuck in his honey-matted beard
who was preaching about a baptism of repentance for the
forgiveness of sins.
Did I mention that the people of Israel were hungry? It
seems like the only logical explanation for the crowds upon
crowds that came to hear John preach has to be that they were
delirious with hunger for God’s word. They were starving and
so they came by the thousands to listen to John preach, to be
dunked in the River, and to hear the promise that a savior was
soon to follow. Rich and poor, priests and lawyers, carpenters
and widows, tax-collectors and mercenaries, men, women, and
children they came hungry for God and they were met with
these terrifying words: “You brood of vipers! Who told you to
flee from the wrath to come? Don’t think you’re special because
you’re a descendant of Abraham. The axe is waiting for those
who do not bear fruit.”
The people of Israel were so hungry that not even the fireand-
brimstone preaching of the John the Baptist could push
them away. They knew that the world was not the way God
intended it to be. All they had to do was look at the people
around them to see that. Just over there was a gaggle of taxcollectors.
You could tell they were tax-collectors because of
the fine clothes they wore; that, and the fact that nobody would
stand near them. The Romans didn’t collect taxes themselves.
It was much more demeaning to an oppressed nation to have
their own people shake them down on behalf of Rome. To make
matters worse, the tax collectors had to collect their own salaries
as well. So if the tax was one shekel, maybe they would collect
one or two or three extra for themselves, depending on how
much they thought they could get. This alone was pretty bad,
but worst of all was that the tax had to be paid in Roman
currency, with coins that bore the image of the Emperor with the
title, “the Son of God.” Certainly, this was not what God had in
mind.
On the other side of the crowd was a company of soldiers,
mercenaries really, who had been hired by Rome to protect the
tax-collectors. These were the clean-up men. After the taxcollector
had taken more than he should, the soldier would
follow behind and extort protection money, drawing whatever
blood there might be left in the turnip by means of harassment
and threats of violence. Standing in the back was a group of
Scribes and Pharisees, arms crossed, with scowls tattooed on
their faces. Everybody knew they were in cahoots with the
Romans. The money changers, who turned Roman coins into
money suitable for the Temple were employed by the religious
powers-that-be. An ever more strict reading of the Law meant
more and more violations and more and more sacrifices. God’s
house had long since stopped being a house of prayer for all
people. The Temple, like Herod’s palace right next door to it,
was filled with thieves. God could not be happy with the way
things were.
Finally, the crowd took a long, hard look at themselves, and
realized that while the world outside wasn’t what God intended
it to be, neither was the world within themselves. They had
become desensitized to the need around them. They had passed
the beggar on the street for so long, that now they didn’t even
notice he was there. Life had become about getting everything
you could, protecting self and family, for fear that one day
something might happen and take it all away. Fear and mistrust
ran rampant, and as John preached, the people who were
starving for the word of God, realized that something had to
change.
As John exhorted the crowd, the Spirit of the Lord went to
work in their hearts and the people were stirred up. They looked
around at the tax-collectors, at the soldiers, at the scribes, and at
themselves and then they looked at John and with tears in their
eyes and torment in their souls they said, “What can we do?
How can we change? What will it take to bear good fruit?”
They asked, almost begging John for an answer, expecting that
this harsh reality would be met by a harsh punishment.
But John didn’t suggest Big Hairy Audacious Goals. He
didn’t tell them to sell everything they have and give it to the
poor. He didn’t suggest they live in a cave in the wilderness,
praying all day, and eating locusts and honey. He didn’t invite
them to fast for 40 days or to sacrifice a bull at the Temple or to
start a revolution. Instead, he offered them the Good News of
the Kingdom of God for Kindergarteners. “If you have two
coats, give one to the poor. If you have food to eat, share some
with the hungry.” We call that sharing. “Don’t collect more
taxes than the Romans tell you to.” That’s called being honest.
“Don’t extort money, and don’t accuse people of things you
know they didn’t do. And be content with your pay.” The
soldiers get two lessons, don’t be a bully and you get what you
get and you don’t pitch a fit. The Kingdom of God looks like
the rules in a Kindergarten classroom because the rules of the
Kingdom are simply about loving God and loving your neighbor
as yourself. In an instant, the people who were starving for a
word from the Lord realized they had received it. This odd
looking, fire-bellied preacher had called them to repentance and
then showed them what that new life should look like, and it
really was quite possible.
Two-thousand years later, the world isn’t that much
different. We are still a long way from fulfilling the prayer that
Jesus taught us, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on
earth as it is in heaven.” Fear mongers are still fear-mongering.
Children still go to bed hungry. The able bodied still can’t find
meaningful employment. Violence is still begetting violence.
The mentally ill are still cast aside and ignored. People are still
hoarding cash and ignoring the poor in their own neighborhoods.
I don’t know about you, but lately, I’ve found myself
particularly hungry for the word of God, searching desperately
for a prophet who will come to make straight the path of the
God. We look around at a world that is far from what God
intends it to be and have to wonder, “What should we do? What
can we do? Can we do anything that will really bear good fruit
and make a difference?”
The answer to that question is the same as it was two thousand
years ago. Absolutely yes. We can make a difference
because we are disciples of Jesus who came to show us how to
live Kingdom lives, loving God, loving neighbor, and as John
the Baptist so simply put it: by sharing, being honest and
satisfied, and by not being a bully. The world won’t become the
Kingdom of God by all of us standing around, waiting for Jesus
to come back and fix it. The world will change when each of us
decides to follow the rules of the Kingdom. The world will
change when, with God’s help, we decide to change ourselves,
to repent of our old ways and to live the Gospel life. Stir us up
Lord, whip us into shape, and send us out to do the work you
have given us to do that we might bear fruit worthy of
repentance and see your Kingdom come on earth as it is in
heaven. Amen.

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The Terrifyingly Mundane

“You brood of vipers!”

“The axe is lying at the root of the tree.”

“The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

lake_of_fireJohn the Baptist, like the prophets who had come before him, was not one to mince words.  He had a message to share.  As much as it was a message of hope, it was, first and foremost, a message of stark realism. God desires righteousness, human beings, both in the age of John the Baptist and today, fall woefully short of that ideal, and there are consequences when we fall short.

The crowd, Luke tells us, hears John’s message and realizing the error of their ways, asks for advice on how they should change their ways.  John’s answer is simple.  In fact, it is so simple as to be terrifyingly mundane.  He doesn’t tell them to fast for 40 days or to move to a cave in the wilderness or to give away everything they own.  Instead, he says “share,” “don’t cheat,” and “be satisfied.”

Wait… what?  Share, don’t cheat, and be satisfied?  That’s what Kingdom living looks like?  That’s, well, just so easy a child could do it.  Which is precisely John’s point. Kingdom living isn’t difficult, we just choose not to do it, which is why the punishment is so severe.

Kingdom living isn’t difficult, but imagine how different the world would be if everyone just followed John’s three simple rules: share, don’t cheat, and be satisfied.

JBap’s Holistic Discipleship

In a post of the Living Church’s blogsite, the Bishop of Springfield, the Rt. Rev. Dan Martins published a post that utilized one’s preference for or against Mel Gibson’s epic, The Passion of the Christ, as a litmus test for whether one would fall on the side of Christianity as a social justice movement or oppositely, at least a the Bishop of Springfield sees it, Christianity as a global operation to save souls.  Yesterday, my friend and colleague, the Rev. Megan Castellan, used none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer to offer a strong critique of Bishop Martin’s dualistic worldview.  I strongly encourage you to read her post, as it is most assuredly better than this one.

What strikes me as odd in the Bishop’s article, is that I can’t find my own place in his dualistic world.  I didn’t like The Passion of the Christ, not because I don’t think that Jesus’ sacrifice is the lynch pin in salvation history, and not because it has the theological nuance of Thor’s hammer, but because the Good Lord did not bless me with the spiritual gift of a strong stomach.  Rarely do I watch a movie that includes graphic violence, not out of some moral repugnance, but a more physical one.  In fact, I planned to never see The Passion of the Christ on just those grounds, but when the Presbyterian youth pastor asks you to join his youth group’s discussion on it because “you’re an Episcopalian who has walked the Stations of the Cross and maybe can explain the extra-biblical bits,” you feel compelled to oblige.

Based on my reason for disliking The Passion of the Christ, am I supposed to all about social justice or evangelism?  Thankfully, as I re-read Sunday’s Gospel lesson, I realized that I have none other than John the Baptist to point to as an example of a holistic discipleship that allows for both.  You’ll recall that in the Gospel lesson for Advent 2, we heard JBap proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  This JBap would have loved The Passion of the Christ (if it wasn’t about the brutal death of his cousin, of course) because he is focused on the need for atonement in the lives of human beings, or what the Prayer Book calls “proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”  Fast-forward to this Sunday, and we hear the crowd responding to JBap’s proclamation by asking: “What then should we do?”

Note that JBap doesn’t take the crowd down Romans’ Road in search of a conversion experience, but rather, he offers practical advice of how disciples of the Kingdom should live: “If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have food to eat, share.”  In Bishop Martin’s dichotomy, this JBap wouldn’t have been impressed with The Passion of the Christ, choosing instead to focus on the politics of the Kingdom, or as the Prayer Book calls it, “striving for justice and peace” and “respecting the dignity of every human being.”

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Both are true to who John the Baptist was and what he taught because the reality is that evangelism and social justice are both at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and to be a disciple of the Kingdom.  John is essentially proclaiming the need to be born again and then describing what the new life looks like.  Despite what Bishop Martins (from which he later retreats, albeit somewhat unconvincingly, but let’s be fair, it is a dualism held by many on the progressive side of the debates of yore as well) posits, the discipleship we learn from none other than John the Baptist calls us to believe that both the conversion of self and the conversion of the whole world are important. As followers of Jesus, we are to proclaim him as exemplar of the faith in the fullness of the Incarnation: his life, his death, and his resurrection.

We are sorely hindered

On June 20, 2012, I wrote one of my most popular blogposts ever.  It didn’t go viral, like my “Why I’m grieving election day” post, but over the years, “Fear, not Doubt is the opposite for faith” has had a strong, steady readership.  This has become increasingly true over the past few months as average views per day are rising, and I think it may have something to do with Donald Trump and his rhetoric of fear that is resonating with not a few Americans.  I suspect that no matter what I write here, my three year-old post on fear will probably be in the top two for today’s statistics.

What causes tens (maybe even hundreds) of thousands of Americans who claim to be disciples of Jesus and guardians of the Constitution to applaud and cheer when Donald Trump suggests that we put a religious test on anyone who would like to enter this country, in order to keep any new Muslims from entering?  The answer is as simple as it is condemning, we are, as the Collect for Advent 3 puts it, “sorely hindred by our sins.”  This is especially true of our fears.  Fear has caused a great many otherwise faithful disciples to give up the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that God loves his whole creation so much that he sent his only Son not to condemn it, but to save every part of it, and instead embrace the false idols of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and hate.

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I don’t use that word, idol, lightly.  It is a bold claim to suggest that others have chosen to walk in sin.  The log in my own eye is huge.  My sins are as numerous as the stars in the sky, and I daily seek forgiveness for them.  I understand that what I am writing is difficult, and yet, as a Priest of the Church, I say it with conviction because I am confident that fear and hate are the antithesis of the Gospel.

This coming Sunday, Advent 3, is known as Gaudete Sunday, which is Latin for “rejoice.”  As the initial darkness of the Advent wreath becomes more than half-light, we pause in the midst of all the busyness, all the stress, all the craziness going on all around us and choose to rejoice in the saving love of God.  We hear the words of Paul, calling the disciples in Philippi to give up worry, and with thanksgiving, to make their requests known to God.  Advent 3 is one of the rare times when we don’t pray together from the Psalms, but rather we join in the ancient practice of the Canticles, singing other songs from Scripture, songs that have been sung since the first centuries of the Church.

On this particular Sunday, our song will be a bold claim against fear, first made by the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel as the Assyrian army made its slow but steady march toward the south and west:

“Surely, it is God who saves me; * I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, * and he will be my Savior.”

The promise of Isaiah to the people of Israel doesn’t come with closed boarders and anxiety, but in sure faith in the one who created everything that is.  Unfortunately for the people of Israel, they too were sorely hindered by fear, and back-room deals by panicked leaders lead to their destruction.  As people of faith, we have a choice to make in this increasingly important moment.  We can choose to be sorely hindered by our sins, to live in fear, and to make decisions based on maintaining our own self-interests.  Or, we can choose to trust in God, to move beyond our fears, and to reach out in love to all who are lost and hurting.  Simply put, we can choose to love our neighbors, no matter their color or creed.

Choosing love is risky, even scary at times.  It is frightening to give away your extra coat.  It is risky to offer to others the food in your pantry.  We might get taken advantage of.  Under the circumstances, we might even get hurt, but to choose love over fear is to choose the peace that surpasses all understanding, a peace that comes from God alone, a peace that is given as grace, if we could only find it buried beneath the fear in our hearts.

We are sorely hindered by our sins, O Lord, especially our fears.  Let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us that we might delight in your loving will and walk in your loving way all the days of our lives.