The Kingdom is Now

One of the problems with being a lectionary-based preacher who doesn’t preach every week is that the appointed passages can begin to take on a life of their own, independent of the larger story.  They become bite-sized morsels, almost as if they are proverbs that you can just dust off for a week, only to eventually place them back into their slot in a compendium of vaguely spiritual ideas.  One week, it’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Another week, we read about Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary.  Next, we get the Lord’s Prayer or the Rich Fool.  Taken separately, each of these short passages offers us a lesson.  Love your neighbor.  Focus on the Kingdom.  Prayer deepens our relationships.  Be rich toward God.  None of these are bad things, but taken in isolation, we learn only in part what it means to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I really struggled this week with what seemed like the most isolated of all the lessons we’ve had lately.  On Wednesday, I was in the car, driving to make a hospital visit, when I heard a quote from one of my favorite modern philosophers, Nicholas Lou Saban that put it all together.  Nick Saban is, for those who don’t know, the head football coach at the University of Alabama.  Coach Saban is one of the most fluent coach-speakers in the history of coach speak.  He can spend 20 minutes talking and say nothing at all.  Yet somehow, in this case, as I listened, I began to realize that, put back together, the last five weeks of Gospel lessons have had a consistent theme running through.  With the ubiquitous bottle of Coca-Cola Classic placed in the sight of the camera, Coach Saban spoke to reporters about the importance of his players focusing only on today.

UA Coaches Press Conference

“It’s really important that they focus on what they control today.  We have so many players here who get frustrated about what happened yesterday, or they get a little complacent because they had success yesterday.  And then we get some players who get worried about what is going to happen in the future.  Really, what you do today, correctly, making the right choices and decisions… that’s what really prepares you for the future… You know, all of us are a little bit addicted to tomorrow. I’ll quit smoking tomorrow. I’ll go on a diet tomorrow… I’ll start studying tomorrow, but really making it happen today is the way you improve. That’s the way we’ll get better. That’s the way you’ll create more value for yourself and that’ll really help our team get a lot better as well.”

Dan and Stu, the sports-talk guys I was listening to, unpacked what Coach Saban was saying, noting that he was actually tapping into something that is taught in many of the world’s religions.  “It’s not just great coaching.  You will find… there is great wisdom in that that you will find in a spiritual quest.  Eckhart Tolle [who, by the way, changed his name due to the influence of the 13th century Christian Mystic, Meister Eckhart] has written about the power of now.  The two things that happen in life that contaminate a human… are regret, which is yesterday, and fear, which is tomorrow.”[1]  As I listened, I realized that over the last five weeks, as we’ve walked with Jesus all around the Galilean countryside, the larger lesson that Luke is trying to convey to his readers is to focus on the now in order to be present to what God has given you and to what God is calling you in this moment.

It began two chapters ago with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  A lawyer, who was fearful about the future, asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life.  The response, that the law is summed up simply in “love God and love your neighbor,” is totally dependent on the now.  True love, the sort of love of which Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection serves as an example, can only exist in the now.  As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “true love keeps no record of wrongs” – it is not worried about the past, and “true love does not envy” – it is not focused on what I can get next.  Real love exists in this moment as you choose, minute by minute, to seek what is best for the person God has placed right in front of you.  In the parable, the priest and the Levite live in fear and worry, focused only on the future, and so, they pass by the injured traveler.  The Good Samaritan, however, was present to the need that God had placed right in front of him and thereby loved his neighbor.

Again, in the story of Jesus being welcomed into Martha’s home, we learn about the power of now.  In the hustle and bustle of the day, Martha was distracted by so many things that her worries were actively pulling her away from the gift that was sitting right in front of her.  When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he stressed the importance of hoping for the Kingdom to come, and that they should seek forgiveness for the sins of the past, but that their prayer should be focused on what God has set before each of us today, “give us this day our daily bread.”  Even last week, in the parable of the rich fool, we hear about the importance of being thankful in the present moment.  There is no wisdom in storing up treasures for tomorrow, but instead, we are called to share what we have right now with those whom God has set before us.

That theme continues into this week’s Gospel lesson with Jesus encouraging his disciples using the words that the spokespeople of God have used since the very beginning, “Do not be afraid.”  The Lectionary skipped us over similar teachings about worry, and Jesus’ famous line about the lilies of the field, “how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”  During the long journey toward the cross, I have no doubt that the disciples were wracked with fear and filled with worry.  Where would they sleep?  How would they find food?  Had they hitched their wagon to the wrong leader as it seemed clear that Jesus wasn’t interested in political leadership or military power.

In the midst of it all, Jesus looked at them and said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  There is nothing that can be done about the sins of the past, but to seek forgiveness.  You have no power of the future, other than what you can do right now to make it better.  So, be present to the possibility of today.  Sell your possessions in order to meet the needs of your neighbor.  Put your trust in the Lord who will supply all your needs.  The Kingdom of God is available to you right now, if you will only be present to it.

As Coach Saban so wisely observed, the world is addicted to tomorrow.  The 24-hour news cycle, which blares at us in every waiting room, dining room, and gas pump, is dependent upon our fear of what tomorrow might bring.  Advertisers and lobbyists make their obscenely comfortable livelihoods by getting us addicted to the regrets of the past and the fear of the future, and then selling us on their particular solution to it.  Fear is the foundation of all the -isms which plague our nation: racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and xenophobia, to name a few.  Fear is the root cause and the goal of the proliferation of violent acts that terrorize us on an almost daily basis.  The Kingdom of God, into which Jesus invites each of us, offers something completely different.  In the Kingdom of God, peace surpasses fear, love outweighs anger, and forgiveness overcomes regret.  It truly is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom, but you have to be present to win.  Your eyes must be open to the needs of your neighbor and to the gifts God has given you.  It is what each of us chooses to do with the now that will help bring the Kingdom just a little bit closer to earth as it is in heaven.  Do not be afraid, my friends, for it is God’s desire to bring forth the Kingdom through you: right here, right now.  Amen.

[1] The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, August 6, 2019, Podcast “Hour 3: Ron Magill”

Advertisements

Beer Truck Eschatology

4829041563_bd7c2dbdc8_b

My parishioner and friend, WEV, lives his life under the Beer Truck Principle.  That is, you never know when your life might be suddenly ended by an unfortunate meeting with a beer truck, so you better live your life to the fullest in every moment.  WEV chose a beer truck as the design of his untimely end, but Jesus, as you might assume, has something even more cosmic in mind.

The second half of Sunday’s Gospel lesson seems to mark a change.  While the lesson begins with what appears to be the tidying up of some stewardship loose ends from last Sunday’s lesson, Jesus’ attention shifts from a focus on foolishness of storing up treasures on earth at the end of our individual lives to the reality that someday, the whole world is going to come to an end.  In only a few short verse, Jesus introduces the idea of a Beer Truck Eschatology.  We know not the hour when God will bring forth the new heaven and the new earth, so we are best served living lives of faithful discipleship in every moment; being fully prepared for that day and hour, which know one knows, when the Son of Man will return.

While we might quibble with the motivation for our faithful discipleship, the reality that someday, Jesus will return and it would behoove us to be found living the life of the Kingdom that is coming seems as good a motivation as any.  How do we live lives worthy of the Master’s good pleasure?  We care for the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  We proclaim the Good News of God’s salvation in word and deed.  We seek justice for every human being.  We love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and we love our neighbors as ourselves.

This isn’t easy, to be sure.  And neither would it have been easy for the slaves to keep watch for their Master when wedding feasts were known to last days on end.  But the reward for faithfulness is beyond all measure.  That the Master would stoop down to serve his slaves is unimaginable, and yet, that’s precisely how Jesus describes the age to come for those who are found ready when the Son of Man comes.

In What do you Trust?

sheriff-decaljpeg-56ba72132e4c56dc

The Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office has joined in the growing number of police departments that have added “In God we Trust” to their patrol cars.  As a member of the clergy, I should probably be more excited about this growing trend, but so often these moves feel like they are done in spite, which makes me feel icky (a deeply theological term).  Anyway, no matter how I feel about the new sticker and fully aware that my judgmental nature is well outside the “radiating the glory of God” category, I’ve actually found myself drawn to these words that we find printed everywhere from Sheriff’s patrol cars to the almost useless penny.

In God we Trust

This is such a profound creedal statement, that if it were really true, would change the face of the earth.  In Sunday’s various lessons, we hear a lot about trust, which in theology is called faith or belief.  For Abram to believe that Sarai was going to bear a child at 90 required something deeper than the intellectual assent we post-enlightenment westerners associate with belief.  Rather, Abram had to trust in God fully.  He placed his whole stake trusting that God would keep his promise. As a result of that trust, the entire course of human history was changed.

Paul, in his letter/sermon to the Hebrews offers a helpful way of looking at trust/faith/belief.  “Faith,” he writes, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is having trust in the one who makes promises, which, again, if we really believed this, the world would be a vastly different place.

Which leads us finally to Jesus’ final word on the parable of the foolish rich man that we heard last week. As he explains the parable to his disciples, the tells them that “where their treasure is, their heart will be also.”  He lays it down before them, wondering, do you trust my word enough to follow me fully in heart, mind, soul, and body? Or, is your trust in someone or something else? Is your trust bifurcated? Are you willing to follow me fully?

Placing our full trust in God is not easy. There are plenty of forces: powers and principalities; that clamor for a little chunk of our trust – us tiling fear, frustration, and the promise of a better future than God has prepared.  To stake out future solely on God can be frightening, but as Jesus, Paul, and Abram show us, the reward is well beyond anything this world can offer.