Pastor Carley’s Sermon from 2-8-15
One day a fourth grade teacher introduced a game called “balloon stomp.” A balloon was tied to every child’s leg, and the object of the game was to pop everyone else’s balloon while protecting one’s own. The last person with an intact balloon would win.
The fourth graders entered into the spirit of the game with vigor. Balloons were relentlessly targeted and destroyed. A few of the children clung to the sidelines like wallflowers at a middle school dance, but their balloons were doomed just the same. The entire battle was over in a matter of seconds, leaving only one balloon inflated. Its owner was instantly the most disliked kid in the class. It’s hard to really win at a game like balloon stomp. In order to complete your mission, you have to be pushy, rude and offensive.
A second class was introduced to the same game. Only this time it was a class of children with learning disabilities. They were given the same explanation as the first class, and the signal to begin was given. But the game proceeded very differently. The one purpose of the game they understood was that the balloons were supposed to be popped. So it was the balloons, not the other players, that were viewed as enemies. Instead of fighting each other, they began helping each other pop balloons. One little girl knelt down and held her balloon carefully in place, like a holder for a field goal kicker. A little boy stomped it flat. Then he knelt down and held his balloon for her. It went on like this for several minutes until all the balloons were vanquished, and everybody cheered. Everybody won.
Who got the game right, and who got the game wrong? In our world, we tend to think of another person’s success as one less opportunity for us to succeed. There can only be one top dog, one big kahuna. Jesus’ teachings turn this upside down. He even said, unless we become like children, we cannot enter the kingdom of God. Which group of children do you think he meant?
Jesus may be one of the most misunderstood teachers of all time. Perhaps part of the reason lies in the story of Jesus’ death – the passion of Jesus’ last week of suffering and death is critical for us. And yet, perhaps we have let that almost unspeakable story overshadow the life and teachings of Jesus, which got him executed in the first place. Jesus life, death and resurrection – that story upon which we will focus as Lent begins in 10 days – it changes everything for us! And yet, this powerful story has tended to overshadow Jesus the teacher, and what he taught. Perhaps we sort of let the teachings of Jesus fade into the teachings about Jesus.
So, what did Jesus teach?
Perhaps the most concise summary of Jesus’ teaching comes in the introduction to the gospel of Mark. Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Mark clearly says that what Jesus was teaching about was the Kingdom of God, and that he was inviting people to change their lives and enter that Kingdom right now.
So what is the Kingdom of God? By the way, Kingdom of Heaven, in Matthew, is the same term. Matthew substitutes the word “heaven” for the word “God,” out of respect for his Jewish readers, who do not pronounce the name “God.”
In chapter 22 of We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McLaren dives into this subject (p. 103). Many people think Kingdom of God refers to “where righteous or forgiven people go when they die,” or “the perfect new world God will create after destroying this hopeless mess.” But for Jesus, the kingdom was not a place we go up to someday, but a reality we pray to come down here now. It was not some distant, future hope, but something available to us right now – it is at hand, within reach.
Kings were a known quantity in the time of Jesus. Kingdoms were the dominant social, political and economic reality of Jesus’ day. Their current king was called “Caesar.”
To understand what a kingdom felt like, let’s go back to the warnings of Samuel, the prophet who reluctantly anointed Israel’s first two kings – Saul and then David. The king will conscript your sons and daughters, he will take the best of your property and produce and give it to his courtiers. You will end up being slaves to your own king.
Kingdom is a top-down power structure in which the few on top maintain order and control over the many at the bottom. Samuel explained the costs – it would cost them their land, their produce, their daughters and sons. None of these would be in their own hands any more. In essence, they would become slaves of their own kingdom. Way back in Samuel’s day the people rejected God’s way of being king. They were willing to give up a lot to have someone fight their battles for them!
This is the natural understanding of kingdom. It was the life Jesus experienced under the kingdom of Rome.
But – here is the key – Jesus taught that the kingdom of God was something completely different! In God’s kingdom, the pyramid is turned upside down – God serves the people rather than the people serving God; the people with most resources serve the people with the least resources. Even today, in modern America, we have a hard time letting go of the concept of the great military-leader-God, who will fight our battles for us.
But, by being crucified, Jesus exposed the heartless violence and illegitimacy of the whole top-down, fear-based dictatorship that nearly everyone assumed was just the way humans are – the nature of the world, unchangeable. Jesus demonstrated the revolutionary truth that God’s kingdom wins, not through shedding the blood of its enemies, but through gracious self-giving on behalf of its enemies. In fact, God’s kingdom destroys the whole concept of competition and the winner/loser dichotomy. Everyone wins. It is like the second classroom of children in the balloon stomp game, when every student helped the others accomplish the goal set before them.
God’s kingdom grows through apparent weakness rather than conquest. God’s kingdom expands through reconciliation rather than humiliation and intimidation. God’s kingdom puts its arms around those who are weak or broken or sinful in the eyes of empire. It holds them until they can release the hate and be softened with love. God’s kingdom approaches with Love first. Truth is only discovered through the strength of love.
How might we translate Jesus’ radical and dynamic understanding of the kingdom of God for our time and culture?
McLaren offers several possibilities (see chapter 22 of, We Make the Road by Walking):
1. Global Commonwealth of God – In other words, not a world divided up and controlled by nations, corporations or privileged individuals, but where all the abundance of creation is the common wealth of all – held in common among all – so that each one has what they need to thrive – to be fully alive.
2. God’s Regenerative Economy. Jesus spoke about money more than any other subject, other than the Kingdom of God itself. So, clearly, kingdom and money are top priorities. This term for Kingdom of God gets at this truth. God’s economy produces enough for everyone, and is not based on hoarding, collecting, competing, or stripping every last element from creation. A regenerative economy gives back enough to produce and support the next generation of life.
3. God’s Holy Ecosystem. This is one of my favorite metaphors. Remember learning in science classes about how each aspect of an area needs each other thing in that area? My recent trip to the desert southwest was a vivid experience of this reality. Everything looks so dry and desolate, but there is a delicate balance maintained which sustains a broad diversity of fully alive creatures and plants.
In Friday’s meditation Richard Rohr commented: So it’s not about being correct: it’s about being connected. When you are connected to the whole chain, held in the nest of being, you can easily live out of a worldview of infinite and divine abundance rather than a “not enough love to go around” model that only creates fearful, fighting, and stingy people.”
Its and upside down Kingdom. There is enough. We have all we need. God is present among us. As soon as we open our hands and hearts to each other and God – Well, then the kingdom of God has come! Of course this was good news! Of course this is still good news!
For us, in a prosperous, first world nation, it takes courage to let go of what we have always assumed. Get down on our knees. Let go of our extras. Seek the good of others. Of course it takes courage. But Jesus still invites us to follow him, to wake up, turn around and invest our lives in this good news – just as he did. But lest we go away thinking this is all on us, the work we do…, let’s go back to God’s ecosystem for a moment.
The thing that seems to capture Kingdom of God in the concept of an ecosystem is that, in all we do, we are connected – to God and each other, with the glue of grace, love and mercy. We need each other to survive. And if we only start there – viewing each person, creature, earth itself as part of us in a connected whole – well, the Kingdom will be among us.