Our readings this morning tell us a Tale of Two Kingdoms. The stage is set at the very beginning of the Bible in the story of Genesis. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden where they are surrounded by life, love, and sustenance—The kingdom of God. But the serpent tempts them to enter the kingdom of the enemy—a kingdom of rebellion and sin, blame and brokenness, and they bite.
The Gospel of Mark continues the tension of this age-old human struggle between good and evil. Chapter one sets the stage for the Tale of Two Kingdoms: when Jesus was baptized and received the Holy Spirit, the Kingdom of God intensified its efforts. But so did the kingdom of the enemy because Jesus immediately battles satan’s temptations for 40 days in the wilderness. Jesus wins the battle and starts the Kingdom of God with a flurry of healing.
In the first 2 chapters of Mark, Jesus healed a man with demon, and Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever, along with crowds of people who were sick and demon-possessed. Jesus went on a preaching and healing tour of Galilee, restoring more and more people to health, including a man with leprosy, a paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends, and a man with a withered hand. Jesus also called the disciples and gave them power over unclean spirits; more people are restored to health and community, they are given dignity and hope. Jesus really had the Kingdom rolling, and the gauntlet against evil has been thrown down.
The very first congregation I served in 1989, was in an urban neighborhood of a major Midwestern city. The community was 85% African American and the congregation was about 30% African American. When I interviewed there, they said they wanted to be a neighborhood church and grow in membership and ministry within the surrounding community. I thought, “Great! Let’s do it!” This was the multi-cultural, urban ministry for which I had prepared.
There were three wise women in the neighborhood who became my mentors, we expanded the summer program for children, trained the youth as leaders in that program, and built relationships with families around the church. In the first 2 ½ years, we took in about 40 new families from the neighborhood, and on Easter Sunday of 1992, we had 8 Baptisms! Who knew church could be so fun?! We started to include more hymns from Spiritual and Gospel traditions, started training deacons, and participated in a joint confirmation program with other Lutheran churches. We really had the Kingdom rolling!
In our text from Mark 3, Jesus then arrived at home; the crowds, who had been pressing in around him to touch him for healing, had followed him there. They were so excited to participate in the power and life of the Kingdom of God they experienced in Jesus, he couldn’t even take time to eat. But Jesus quickly learned that getting the kingdom rolling, was not good news to those who ruled by power, domination and fear in the kingdom of the enemy. Empowered, healthy people are harder to control, more difficult to tax, and less easily manipulated by fear. Abundance and possibility, hope and opportunity make it harder for the powers-that-be to maintain their position. So the battle with the kingdom of the enemy began again in earnest.
Jesus’ family showed up—not to support him and say, “That Jesus who’s healing everybody? That’s my son! He’s my brother!” No, it wasn’t pride and hope that brought them out, it was shame! They said Jesus had lost his mind and tried to contain him! No wonder Jesus redefined what family is—family is not just those who are connected to us by blood, but those who live and work in God’s Kingdom for the power of love, and all that is good!
The Tale of Two Kingdoms continued as the religious establishment attempted to discredit Jesus. The Scribes were the theological experts of the day who had religious authority and impeccable credentials. The Scribes recognized that Jesus had power, but they labeled his power as evil, that Jesus was an agent of satan. They called him Beelzebul, a demon associated with the Canaanite god, Baal with whom Elijah did battle in 2 Kings. That was "blaspheming against the Holy Spirit"—to call the healing of God, the work of the devil (many today teach that suicide is the unforgivable sin, but this is a hurtful misinterpretation of this text). The religious experts in Jesus' day preferred to keep their power, even if it meant serving satan’s kingdom in the guise of religion.
It’s heartbreaking to contemplate, isn’t it? People who dedicated their lives to God, completely dismissed the possibility of God’s power, restoration and healing. They saw people set free from demons, experiencing wholeness and dignity for the first time! Jesus promised forgiveness to all, including them: Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter! The scribes could see, touch, hear, and witness miracles right in front of them, yet, they were devoid of hope, blind to forgiveness, and held nothing but contempt for God’s work.
It was also heart-breaking, to experience the very same thing in my first congregation. Right when it was going so well, and it was so exciting, it all started to unravel because some, thankfully not all, but many of the long-time white members were too uncomfortable with their loss of power. They began to undermine the success of all the ministry and community we had built. Someone went so far as to commit racial slander against two African American female members of the Council at the Synod Assembly. I had to remove that person from their leadership position, and after that, it got pretty ugly. I was called some terrible, racist names, that I won’t repeat, and people spread lies about me. Some members had so much internalized racism, that they could not see what was really happening until after I left. It was indeed, a Tale of Two Kingdoms. Like the Scribes, many of the white people preferred to keep their power, even if it meant serving the enemy of racism in the guise of religion. It was so devastating, that I sought counseling for about eight months afterward to put me back together, emotionally and spiritually.
Why do I share this story? To make it clear that the Tale of Two Kingdoms is not limited to Bible times, and the history books. The Tale of Two Kingdoms isn’t out there somewhere else on the other side of the world. The struggle between two kingdoms, between good and evil, between God and the enemy of God is in our hearts, and in the church, and in our families, and in our work places, and everywhere we go every day of our life.
My husband Dan spoke this week with a woman who left her job at a real estate company because another employee was stealing business from colleagues and undercutting their sales. When she reported this to her boss, she was told that the unethical employee was producing sales, so nothing would change. A Tale of Two Kingdoms.
A friend of mine recently told me she had to confront her boss about his request for her to submit a reimbursement for the same expense to two different companies. She refused to do it; fortunately, her boss reconsidered his behavior and she kept her job. A Tale of Two Kingdoms.
Today, Jesus invites us again to choose the Kingdom of God. Choose life, choose wholeness, choose forgiveness, choose justice, choose love, even when it means sacrificing something that we value, so that others may live or heal or eat.
• When children are dying in our schools from automatic rifle fire, and politicians and citizens act as if nothing can be done, whose kingdom are we choosing? If we as people of faith cannot find a way to respect the second amendment AND prevent children from being killed in school, then we have abdicated the power of the Gospel to save and transform us.
• When immigrant parents come to our border asking for asylum, even legally, only to have their children taken from them, who’s kingdom are we choosing?
• When more than ½ million people in north Texas are food insecure, including 1 in 4 children, whose kingdom are we choosing?
Through the power of Jesus Christ within us, we have all the power we need to choose Life, to choose God’s Kingdom and live by the values of love, and wholeness and dignity for all people. Our reading from 2 Corinthians reminds us that we have the power to speak and to act in accordance with our belief in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. Verse 14 exhorts us, we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus… so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart.
We do not lose heart in extending grace to more and more people! The power of God that raised Jesus from the dead resides in YOU, in ME, in our life together as the church. In case we forget or feel empty—we get a free re-fill right here at this table every week, where we are being renewed day by day. We are renewed in the power of Christ Jesus to speak and to act, to live lives of bold justice, radical love, and all-inclusive grace. One way to choose the Kingdom of God is to participate with Faith in Texas, an organization that works with religious communities to address issues in the metroplex—right now it’s working on issues in public education. They have a training coming up in two weeks, and you can talk with Gail, Emily or me for more information.
When we choose the kingdom of God every day, God uses our hardships to bring more blessings and abundance in the next place.
• One of the women who was slandered in my first congregation went to seminary and became a Lutheran pastor!
• The building of that congregation is now being used by a non-denominational church that’s reaching out to the community.
• After I resigned from that call, and got some healing, I served as an Interim Pastor at another urban congregation. It was only because of that painful experience at my first call that I was able to help prevent similar destructive behavior from happening in that congregation.
God uses all of it!--the good, the bad and the ugly--to bring life and love and hope anew, because that’s the way of God’s Kingdom! God is always working life in us and through us. So, do not lose heart in extending grace to more and more people! The Tale of Two Kingdoms is on-going, Choose life! Choose the Kingdom of God.