The Third Sunday after the Epiphany (Year B)
January 26, 2003
The Reverend Paul R. Abernathy, Rector firstname.lastname@example.org
St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C.
"Jesus…proclaimed the good news of God, saying, 'The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near.'"
This is the essence of preaching of Jesus. The kingdom of God has come near. I prefer the Revised Standard Version's wonderfully fleshy image: "The kingdom of God is at hand". No matter how far you extend one of your hands from your body, you still can reach it with your other hand. The kingdom is that close!
Jesus doesn't tell us what the kingdom is. For the people of his era, God's kingdom was such a fixture in their historical and theological self-understanding that no explanation was needed. For us, some definition is helpful. God's kingdom, a complex concept at best, is, at its simplest, God's reign or realm. God's reign is neither an earthly nor, I believe, a heavenly domain, but, rather, a state of being.
A couple of years ago, I preached a sermon about God's kingdom. Searching for a word that was less monarchical and less masculine, more relational and more inclusive, I used the term "kindom". Creating one's own language may be arrogant or, at the very least, unnecessarily extravagant, but, for me, the difference between "kingdom" and "kindom" points to the biblical meaning. God's reign is less about the dominion of an almighty God and more about the character of the being and life of that God. An existence characterized by justice, fair dealing one with another, and compassion, shared living and loving in suffering and in joy. God's reign, therefore, implies, no, demands the existence of a community of justice and compassion. Stated another way, God's reign is not about one being, even God, who is just and compassionate, but, rather, a community in which these values are embraced, indeed, embodied.
So it is that Jesus called disciples to follow him, to be in fellowship with him. So it is, as we read on in the gospel narrative, that Jesus repeated that call in sending his disciples out to do likewise -- to gather community.
Why am I taking about this? It is important, I believe, for us, periodically, to revisit the symbols of the faith, in this case, God's kingdom. For this idea as expressed in today's gospel passage has been understood throughout Christian history as a call to spread the faith, to evangelize, to "make" Christians. "Fishing for people" is a powerful metaphor that has formed and framed much of the church's self-understanding. The church is a body of believers convinced of the cosmic proportion and universal import of its cause (after all, it's all about God and eternal life!) and, therefore, committed to calling all others to embrace those beliefs. This, of course, is an oversimplified view of two thousand years of Christian missiology. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the Christian church, compelled by its beliefs, facing a world of many peoples and ideologies, often has engaged in evangelistic efforts and battles of belief, which, in their zealousness, have lacked the characteristics of justice and compassion.
Again, it is important for us to re-examine our symbols so to reclaim their original, authentic intent. Today, specifically, we revisit this idea of God's kingdom, which was at the heart, no, was the heart of Jesus' proclamation of the good news: "The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near". Not in heaven, but here! A community of justice. Not in eternity, but now! A community of compassion. Not in an afterlife when we die, but today!
I believe that the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom is not about salvation from eternal death to eternal life. This is what the church in its historical development has made of the message. Rather, the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom is about salvation from separation and isolation. Stated another way, the proclamation of the kingdom is less a call to adopt a set of beliefs and more an invitation to be in community. An invitation to struggle with that paradox that one can become fully one's self only in the company of other fellow strugglers. An invitation to share in the search for the meaning of this life. (If there is an afterlife, trust me, it will be there when we get there!) An invitation to live in justice and compassion one with another. An invitation to carry that message, indeed, to live a life of justice and compassion out in the wider world of the communities of our families and friends, schools and workplaces, neighborhoods and cities, regions and nations.
If we accept this proclamation and invitation, a tension naturally, immediately arises: I want justice and compassion, indeed, I want to be just and compassionate, but I fear that I won't find it, either in the world or in me. Our fears notwithstanding, it is to the world and ourselves that we must look for signs of justice and compassion. Please, let us not look to the heavens waiting for justice and compassion to come down!
On Monday of last week, Pontheolla and I were in Houston, Texas. I was the preacher at a Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. The event was sponsored by three Episcopal congregations and the Houston Chapter of Integrity, the national Episcopal advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. Before the service, a dinner was held at which I was invited to engage in a dialogue with Dr. Louie Crew, a Rutgers University professor, a long active Episcopal layperson, and the founder of Integrity. We each spoke of race and sexuality and, more specifically, of racism and homophobia. We made observations about the reformation of a broken world into a more just and compassionate society. We also shared personal experiences. When we spoke of our personal experiences, I realized that we were talking about God's kingdom…
Louie spoke of his thirty-year life with his partner, Ernest. How, in the beginning, his parents could not, would not accept their relationship. How, in the pain and sorrow of that rejection, Louie was prepared to sever his relationship with his parents. How Ernest, out of the depths of wisdom and grace, besought Louie to continue to nurture his relationship with his parents, saying, "They poured love into you, which allows you to love me." How, over time, a transformation occurred. One day, Louie's father called, saying, "I want to speak to my son". After a moment's conversation with Louie, his father, referring to Ernest, said, "Now, I want to speak to my other son." How, since then, the bonds of familial love have deepened. Louie's and Ernest's relationship. There is God's kingdom of justice and compassion! Ernest's encouragement to Louie. There is God's kingdom of justice and compassion! The response of Louie's parents. There is God's kingdom of justice and compassion!
I spoke of the life and death of my brother, Wayne. A gay man who was not fully welcome in the parish church he dearly loved. A church that could not, would not talk openly about human sexuality, hence, forcing many to live desperately closeted lives. Wayne chose another course. To be himself in the world and the church, asking, sometimes demanding to be accepted on his own terms. Slowly, our parents did accept him. Nevertheless, when Wayne died of complications of AIDS, our parents, in their grief, could not, would not acknowledge the truth. My father insisted, "We must tell people that Wayne died of pneumonia", which, of course, was technically true. I preached at my brother's funeral. To honor an honest man, I told the truth about his life and his death, which opened a conversation in that community about sexuality. My brother, in his authentic life. There is God's kingdom of justice and compassion! My parents, in their pained, yet, passionate love and acceptance. There is God's kingdom of justice and compassion! A community's open, heartfelt response…finally! There is God's kingdom of justice and compassion!
My beloved St. Mark's community, "The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near." The time is now. God's kingdom is at hand. God's kingdom is in your hands. Where do you see it?
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