Kingdom of God

  • Doing our Kingdom Work in God’s Story of Salvation

    Reformation Confirmation ImageReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Deuteronomy 34:1-12 on October 25, 2020 for Reformation and Confirmation Sunday at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

    It is all so disappointing. Moses standing there looking over at the Promised Land, but not being able to enter it. He had done so much to bring the people of Israel there—challenging Pharaoh, calling down the plagues, fleeing Egypt on the night of the Passover, crossing the Red Sea, and then 40 years in the wilderness, no less—and all the while the Israelites whining and complaining!

    He received the Ten Commandments, guided the people, helped repair their relationship with God when they strayed – Moses did it all. Certainly, he made his mistakes, but he proved faithful to God and to Israel when it mattered most. Now here he is, ready to cross the finish the line—and God says, “you’re going to sit this one out, you can look, but you can’t touch.” Such a disappointing ending for Moses, whose grave no one can even find.

    We are living through our own time of disappointment during this global pandemic, when memorial services are put off or done outside. When familiar worship and family gatherings cannot be experienced, and we are bereft and disappointed. We have to re-imagine how to plan Thanksgiving and Christmas. Who can gather together, should we try to eat outside? Do we quarantine the college kid for two weeks so grandpa can come to dinner? Do we put the computer at the head of table so we can eat with family on Zoom?

    When Natalie and Sam Sherrod started Confirmation two years ago, we never imagined their Confirmation service would be anywhere but, in the Sanctuary, kneeling at the Communion railing with a full church celebrating their Affirmation of Baptism as adult members of this congregation. Instead, they will be kneeling on pillows on the curb. Natalie and Sam and all of us join Moses looking out at a Promised land, imagining how things could have been and should have been.

    Was Moses himself disappointed as he stood on the brow of Mt. Pisgah and beheld a future that was not open to him? Our story does not tell us, but rather, it focuses on the work that Moses had done, rather than the reward we feel he should have received. Our passage highlights Moses’ role in God’s larger story of salvation. There are four patterns of Moses’ life and ministry that are instructive for us today as we celebrate the Reformation and Confirmation for Sam and Natalie.

    First, Moses did his job. God had a specific role for Moses, and he fulfilled his calling in a way that only he could do. Moses argued, challenged and negotiated with God along the way, he made mistakes, and he bore the brunt of Israel’s sin—but he remained faithful to God and stayed in relationship with God, doing all that God asked of him as best he could. All of us have a unique way to serve God whether in or out of pandemic. How we serve may have changed, but that we are called to love and serve our neighbor as ourselves has not. Some do it through prayer, through card ministry, through phone calls, through giving, through caring for neighbors. Some serve on ministry teams or in leadership roles, others through the care they offer at work. Martin Luther taught in the Reformation that we are the priesthood of all believers and each one of us is called to serve Christ where we are with the what we have; and St. Luke’s, we are a church that models this for our new confirmands, Sam and Natalie.

    Second, Moses trusted God’s promises and spent time with God regularly. Moses modeled spiritual practices for us, spending time apart with God alone, and engaging in conversation with God. As God shows Moses the promised land, God says, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, "I will give it to your descendants.’ Because Moses spent so much time with God—the only one who saw God face to face, or in the burning bush, he never doubted God would keep this promise, so Moses could die in peace. We too, can trust God to fulfill God’s promises.

    Martin Luther taught that prayer was crucial to human life and that we respond to God by praying regularly, forthrightly, honestly, and frequently. We can engage in our deepening relationship with God, spending time apart, and with Sam and Natalie today, re-affirming our commitment to engaging in this relationship with God, so that no matter what goes on around us, our faith remains a stable source of peace.

    Third, Moses empowered the next generation of leaders in Joshua and Caleb. Moses anointed them with the spirit and power to become the new leaders of Israel, taking over for him as they enter the Promised Land. Sometimes we forget that everything is not up to us. God always calls us to be raising up the next generation of leaders with new skills, new faith, new perspectives, and new energy to lead the upcoming step into the future. The folks who started this congregation in 1957 did not know who would serve on Council in 2020, but they trusted every generation of leaders to raise up the next generation. That is what Confirmation is today—raising the next generation in the faith, learning from them, listening to them, allowing our ministry to be shaped by them so we can grow into the future. Do you remember eight months ago none of us considered worshiping with screens, and now we cannot imagine being without them? How will Sam and Natalie’s generation help us expand sharing the Gospel with digital ministry?

    Martin Luther wrote the Catechism to equip every household to teach the basics of the faith to the next generation. Natalie and Sam are our Joshua and Caleb today, helping lead us and see our way into a new future.

    Finally, Moses held onto a vision of the future. As he stood on the mountaintop, Moses could see that future stretched out before him. To be sure, Christians need to be informed and know what is going on in the world. But there comes a time when we turn off the news and social media and instead, envision what God’s kingdom of love and justice really looks like, so we always have a clear picture of what we move toward. In our worship, at the Lord’s Table, through our study of scripture, God endows us with a divine imagination that empowers us to glimpse God’s future for us and the world– a future that is more peaceful, more just, more connected, more hopeful for more people.
    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was named for our reformer, Martin Luther) had a gift for turning present day conflicts into a clear vision for the future. The night before he was assassinated, he spoke on this very Bible passage with these words:

    Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people will get to the promised land.1

    We trust this vision, we hope for this vision, we work for this vision, and we confirm Sam and Natalie into this vision today. And so with Moses, we do the kingdom work that God calls us to do. We train and raise up a new generation of leaders. We commit ourselves body and soul to God, praying regularly, forthrightly, honestly, and frequently. And We hold onto God’s vision that we as a people will get to the promised land. 

    1A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 286.
    Reflection Questions:

    • Have there been times when you have done the right thing, what God desires, but no reward is forthcoming? As you look back on those situations, can you see yourself in God’s larger purpose and story of salvation?
    • How does God call you to love and serve others today, right now? Has this changed given our pandemic circumstances? Are there new ways God has called you to serve?
    • Have you thought of yourself as “priest” by nature of your Baptism, as part of the “priesthood of all believers” as Luther taught? Does thinking this way increase the urgency of your service and gifts offered in the world?
    • How is your prayer life? Does having more time at home give you an opportunity to pray “regularly, forthrightly, honestly, and frequently?”
    • What do you think St. Luke’s can do to connect more with teens, and with Millennials in their 20’s and 30’s? What relationships do you have with people in these age groups?
    • What is your vision of the promised land and the kingdom of God here on earth?

  • Winning the World with Love

    blogpic.KingLoveA Sermon preached on Luke 23:33-43 for Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2016

    The difficulty in celebrating Jesus Christ as our King today, and every year, for that matter, is that after 2 millennia, Christians the globe over still find Jesus’ style of leadership nearly impossible to follow.

    This passage from Luke offers us two kinds of kingship—two kinds of power and authority, two kinds of kingdoms, and we often find it’s easier to side with the crucifiers rather than the crucified.

    The leaders, soldiers, one of the criminals and the standers-by give voice to Herod’s kingdom. In the verses earlier in chapter 23 of Luke, both Herod and Pilate have found that Jesus has done nothing wrong, yet the truth seems irrelevant in a culture where wielding power over others is the ultimate god. “Save yourself!” shouted the soldiers, leaders and on-lookers. “save yourself and us!” implores the criminal hanging beside him. “Look out for #1 and use force, use might, use power over others by any means necessary to win the day!”

    Jesus, hanging on the cross, brings us a different kind of kingdom. “Father, forgive them for they do not what they are doing.” Instead of fighting and resisting, Jesus takes on the violence, he absorbs it rather than giving it back. Jesus takes in all the pain and returns love. In Jesus kingdom, he reigns from a cross rather than a palace; he forgives the people who killed him, his only weapon is love rather than might, and he saves criminals and brings them to paradise. Rather than power over others, he embodies an equalizing power beside others—beside all the other innocents who suffer unjustly.

    Herod uses violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nationality. Jesus' sets aside the sword and instead invites all people, even enemies, into a new way of being.

    Herod’s authority comes from the will of Caesar, the emperor, and it’s always tenuous. Jesus' authority comes from doing the will of God, which is constant and eternal.

    Herod taxes the poor, takes what is not his, oppresses the vulnerable, and demonizes those who threaten his power. Herod has no interest in building community - much less one guided by truth and love, and Herod keeps order through fear--through the threat of death on a cross or otherwise. Again, by contrast, Jesus’ ministry has been a traveling parade of love, healing, renewal, second chances, beatitudes and bread – lots of bread to feed thousands and thousands of people. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers leap for joy, the demon-possessed dance with praise. Jesus enters peoples’ suffering, sees their humanity, empowers those he meets with forgiveness and love.

    Yet when his kingdom leads to the cross—we’re not so sure we want to follow Jesus’ reign as king there. There’s a fearful part of us that wants the same kind of king as the crowds, leaders, and soldiers that believe that Herod’s kingdom is the only way – we want someone who is powerful, who can save himself and us, and who will take vengeance on his and our enemies.

    But Christ our King, looks at us from the cross and asks, which kingdom will you follow?
    • When white supremacist views regain currency in our national conversation and leadership, who’s kingdom are we listening to—Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?
    • When we view our political enemies as a “basket of deplorables” who’s kingdom are we voicing —Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?
    • When we’re tempted to demonize Muslims or immigrants out of our own fear and prejudice, who’s kingdom is gaining power, Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?
    • When we see acts of terrorism that continue around the world, we do want to give into fear, to close our borders, to increase military action abroad, use drones and every kind of fire power against our enemy, but who’s kingdom does such action follow, Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?

    We bring our cries and prayers before God today and we ask for the power and wisdom of our risen Lord and King to help us tease out the differences between what our fear want us to do and what our faith in Jesus Christ calls us to do.

    The great sin of American Christianity has been to merge our patriotism with our Christian calling in the world, but Luke makes clear that these are often not one in the same. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to lift up Jesus Christ as King than after this election. For there is no political party, no candidate, and no government that embodies nor deserves our loyalty above Jesus Christ our Lord.

    For all violence, whether wrought by terrorists, nations, or individuals, is the way of Herod which never leads to a crown of righteousness, a kingdom, and a power that is true and everlasting.

    All rhetoric that divides and demeans people whether spoken by a political candidate, a family member across the Thanksgiving table, or a social media platform, is the way of Herod and not the way of the cross.

    Mahatma Ghandi said it this way: “The enemy of love is not hate, but fear.” In fact, there are 365 “Fear nots” in the Bible – one for every day of the year. Fear is fundamental in our drive to follow Herod’s way and save ourselves, rather than Jesus’s way of forgiveness, transformation through love and care for those on the margins of society.

    It does not mean that we don’t need compassionate screening at our borders, or economic policies that produce jobs. But as Christians, we must call to account, manipulation through fear-mongering, demeaning and endangering people by fostering hate, and unethical, inhumane policies that result from fear.

    Jesus did not let fear, the threat of violence, or the pain of death put a stop to his love, compassion, and solidarity with God’s people. He transformed fear into love, and death into life, and violence into victory. Through his resurrection from the dead, he slipped the surly bonds of earth so we can all touch the face of God. Jesus’ kingdom is so powerful that it bridges this life and the next life, the earthly realm and the heavenly realm, the finitude of this world and the infinity of the next.

    We don’t need to save ourselves, because Jesus has already done so! Herod’s kingdom tempts us to seek through violence that which we already have—salvation!

    To the criminal hanging next to him, Jesus says: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Today, not tomorrow, not next week, not when the kingdom comes in its fulfillment, not at the apocalypse, not when the Herod’s of the world give up. Today. Today you will be with me in paradise.

    Jesus says the same to us--"Today, you’re sins are forgiven. Today, this is my body and this is my blood given for you. Today, I am with you. Today, my love is stronger than death. Today my power is greater than your fear. Today my kingdom is greater than this earthly realm." Today, Jesus calls us to live in this eternal kingdom here and now, as a witness against the “Herods” and “fear-mongers” of this time.

    St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order and The Spiritual Exercises, describes Jesus’ call from the cross in this way: It is my will to win over the whole world, to overcome evil with good, to turn hatred aside with love, to conquer all the forces of death—and whatever obstacles there are that block the sharing of life between God and humankind. Whoever wishes to join me in this mission must be willing to labor with me and so by following me in struggling and suffering, that you may share with me in glory. (A contemporary interpretation by David L. Fleming, S.J. in Draw Me Into Your Friendship, p. 85)

    Jesus, risen from the dead calls us to join him in winning over the whole world with love. A friend of mine has a son who works as a high school counselor. The day after election, he texted his mom in the morning to say it was a terrible day already because white students were bullying minority students. He had a Latino student in his office in tears because students were saying he would be deported. At the end of the day, he communicated with her again and said it had turned out to be a good day. He was able to talk with the bullies and the victims and was able to begin to transform hate and pain into respect and healing. In other words, he was working in Jesus’ kingdom to win over the day with love.

    So be filled with Jesus love at the Communion table today, and at your own table every day. Embody Jesus’ kingdom in your daily life, your daily conversations, in your daily actions and your daily work by being grounded in Jesus’ love and salvation for you, grounded in God’s love for this whole Creation and for every person it; and trusting that through Christ, all things are possible.

    That’s what Jesus, our King desires; and it’s absolutely what our country and world needs.

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