Rev. Ellen Jennings
This is a story.
This is a story of a woman who tried to figure out how the Kingdom of God could be “right here, among us, for anyone who seeks it,” as we say in our communion liturgy each month. She just couldn’t figure out, especially now, how God’s Kingdom could be “right here.”
So, she struggled. And she knew a lot of other people who were struggling as well. Clergy, lay people, family, friends. None of them was quite sure what to do with this kingdom theology in a country whose leaders suddenly seemed hell bent, pardon the language, on pursuing an anti-gospel: one that prioritized the rich, valorized the “most of these,” denigrated the stranger, and felt no need, whatsoever, for mercy or forgiveness.
She (and they) were puzzled. Shocked. Sad. Angry. And, frankly, kind of stuck. What next? What now? Where? How?
But, change being the only constant, it wasn’t possible to remain stuck. Because new information kept coming in. Some good. Some bad. Okay, a lot bad. But, some good!
And, one day, on Facebook, she read the following:
“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” She remembered when President Obama said this! And she pondered it. Close to her heart. Then, looking more carefully, she saw that some wise person had posted a comment on the origin of the quote, saying it may have come from a Hopi Indian story, an incredibly beautiful story that I want to share.
As I do, I invite you to imagine what this woman might have thought as she read it…
A Hopi elder speaks:
You have been telling people that this is the Eleventh Hour, now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour. And there are things to be considered…
Where are you living?
What are you doing?
What are your relationships?
Are you in right relation?
Where is your water?
Know your garden.
It is time to speak your truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for your leader.
Then he clasped his hands together, smiled, and said, “This could be a good time! There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water.
And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt.
The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word ’struggle’ from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Please savor these words for a moment. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” What do they mean to you? Do you find them empowering?— or daunting? Both, perhaps. Because, we, “we, the people,” as it were, are the ones. If “it” is going to be done, we’re the ones who are going to do it.
And I think this is what Jesus realized after his baptism by John in the Jordan. Remember, two Sundays ago when I preached how this baptism marked a “proactive” start to Jesus’ three-year ministry? Well, not long after, John was arrested and killed by the powers that be—bluntly, he was decapitated and his head delivered on a platter at a state dinner—but I digress.
According to Matthew, when this occurred, Jesus recalled the words of the Prophet Isaiah, uttered centuries before when the Kingdom of Judah lay under great threat from the Assyrian Empire. For, at that time, the prophet offered hope to the people of Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel) by saying:
There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish… the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined…
And I’m sure these words were comforting. I mean, who among us doesn’t want to be reassured, when living in deep darkness, that a light on us has shined?!
And I imagine Jesus felt comforted by them as well. For, there he was, 800 years later, recalling these words in a land that lay under the oppressive yoke of the Roman Empire, his cousin John about to be executed. He certainly needed some Light! But perhaps, as he pondered them, he wondered: Where is the Light? Who is the Light?
And, looking around, and within, he realized: it’s here. God’s Light is here, and we’re the beams of it! We don’t have to sit around and wait. God’s Kingdom isn’t “out there” or “still to come.” God’s Kingdom or Realm or Reign is right here, and we are part of it. Thus, the Good News: “Repent,” Jesus says in Matthew, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Now, before I go any further, I’d like to unpack a couple of these terms. The first, “repent,” or teshuvah in Hebrew, means “turn around.” In other words, the direction you’re currently going may not be so great; thus, you might want to consider slowing down and making a U turn, back to God and God’s direction. The second is, “Kingdom of Heaven,” which is Matthew’s phrase for what other gospel writers call, “Kingdom of God.” The reason for this is that Matthew wrote to a primarily Jewish community, and one of the ways Jews, then and now, honor God is by declining to write or say the name of the Holy One. Thus, for “Yahweh” (God’s name in Hebrew), the word Adonai or “Lord” is used. In English, instead of God, G—D is written. And, Matthew wrote “Kingdom of Heaven” instead of Kingdom of God.
For our purposes, assume Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God mean the same thing. And, with that, let’s return to the Good News: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven (or God) has come near!” What does Jesus mean?
Well, I imagine him saying the following:
Turn around! Turn back from your folly of material excess and power hungriness and individualism and judgy-ness, and remember love of neighbor, the community, generosity, and forgiveness. Turn back; remember; and then do these things! Because I can’t do them for you. The Kingdom of God is near—but it’s not here unless you create it.
How do you create it? Well, I’ll spend the next three years teaching you, but here’s a primer: love your neighbor (and yourself!), forgive freely, judge cautiously (or not at all), care for those who have little, welcome the stranger, embrace the down and out, share what you have, and, yes, love your enemy. If you do these things, whenever you do these things, the Realm of God will be here, right here with you, fully present.
To paraphrase Frederick Buechner: when we live out God’s will, the Kingdom is here. To quote him: Insofar as all the odd ways we do [God’s] will at this moment are at best half-baked and halfhearted, the kingdom is still a long way off—a hell of a long way off, to be more precise and theological.
By which he means, the Kingdom or Realm or Reign of God is a way of being, a way of acting, a way of engaging with one another that embodies the mandate: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s Kingdom isn’t coming some far day in a place yet to be determined, though there are plenty of Christians who still believe this. God’s realm exists every moment we live God’s Way in the world: whenever we share freely, comment kindly, welcome extravagantly, speak authentically, trust courageously. It’s a kairos rather than chronos event. Meaning, it doesn’t happen “when,” it happens “as.” As we love. As we respect. As we share. As we forgive. God’s Kingdom comes.
So, friends, we are going to talk a lot in the days ahead about what it means to live God’s Realm in the world. What it asks. What it requires. But, for today, let’s just sit with the reality of what this realm is. Let us dwell in the knowledge that this realm is here, with us, even as we speak. That we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. That this is the time we have awaited. And here is the place it will happen.
On earth as it is in heaven.