The Kingdom of God- Sermon for June 14, 2020 from Pastor John
Sermon for June 14, 2020
The murder of an innocent African-American man, George Floyd, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has sparked nation-wide protests. The news reports protest against racism in other countries. Certainly the right to protest and even express outrage over injustice is a constitutional right as long as such events are peaceful. But the church certainly does not condone looting, arson, and vandalism that destroys livelihoods and communities. As far as protests are concerned it has been quiet in the North woods. But on the news the sight is truly incredible—not a few hundred have taken to the streets but thousands. We see the usual signs: Black Lives Matter. This is an imperative demanding those of us enjoying the privilege of being white to listen to black lives tell their stories of how they feel suffocated in their communities by discrimination and dehumanization. Protestors, especially those in the African American communities keep calling folks to say the names of those who lost their lives to racial violence. It is a way to remember that those who died were beloved human beings, that their lives mattered to their families and to God, their Creator. There are many signs with the words “Defund the Police” which I do not understand. Yes some police tactics need to be abolished because of unnecessary violence but police departments are not to be abolished. And then on one news clip I saw the sign: “Jesus is an ally”. And so I wonder, would Jesus be on the streets joining the protestors.
We heard in our gospel lesson that Jesus certainly was not hiding out at home or confined to the sidelines. Jesus was going from town to town teaching in the synagogues. Being a faithful adherent of the Jewish faith, he was a popular rabbi teaching the people. Jesus preached proclaiming good news: the good news of the kingdom of God. You know, I have always wondered, ‘what does the kingdom of God’ mean? The study Bible teaches us that this kingdom is not a country with walls and boundaries. We are to think of ‘kingdom’ as the active rule of God. Jesus activates the kingdom by what he was doing: curing every disease and sickness. To know more just read the preceding chapter of Matthew and we hear story after story of what Jesus was up to as he traveled from place to place. He proclaimed the good news of the forgiveness of sins. He cast out demons and freed people from hostile spiritual forces. Such actions were controversial opposed by the religious authorities. They accused Jesus of blasphemy, a serious charge meaning Jesus was accused of defaming God. He was accused of being a demon himself. Jesus embodied the kingdom of God which crossed over human-built boundaries. He would touch those called unclean and bring healing. He even called Matthew, a tax-collector, to be a disciple. And when Jesus was questioned as to why he would eat and drink and fellowship with tax collectors and sinners he responded to his critics by quoting scripture: “Go and learn what this means, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.” God did not want followers to think that all God required were animals sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. God wanted the faithful to practice mercy. Jesus could have also quoted from the prophet Micah who said “What does God require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” The good news of the kingdom is the justice of God which has nothing to do with punishment. In the Bible the word justice means God’s righteousness, God making things right so people are treated with love and mercy. God is merciful, a common confession of the Bible which declares that God is slow to anger, merciful, and abounding in steadfast love. To appreciate and appropriate the good news one must walk with God every day, and one must do so humbly, an awareness of the need for repentance but ever confident of God’s unfailing mercy.
So the protest marches occurring in the streets of the nations’ cities have caused me to think that the Kingdom of God means protest. When the text said Jesus went about all the cities and villages it meant he was on a constant protest march. Jesus did not want people to be treated like outcasts, but instead he would find such folks and fellowship with them, accept them, and teach they were not excluded from the love and mercy of God. Jesus did not want people to be labeled ‘sinners’ with the meaning they were unwanted and even condemned by God. Jesus had an antidote for that: the good news of the forgiveness of sins. Jesus knew full well there other kingdoms, sometimes referred to as the kingdoms of this world, opposed to the kingdom of God. Such kingdoms have an appealing message: Satan even tried that with Jesus saying he would give him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor and glory. It was so ingrained in people that even his disciples were bickering about greatness and privilege. Jesus finally told them they were acting like the rulers of the age who love nothing more than to lord it over others. But it shall not be among Jesus followers because in the Kingdom of God greatest means to be a servant. Jesus said ‘I will practice what I preach’. Jesus came not to be served or demand privilege as the Son of God, for he came to serve, even to give his life as a ransom for many. What Jesus meant by ‘ransom’ was not some sort of actual payment to hostile forces, but that his whole ministry of mercy, leading to the sacrifice on the cross, would liberate us from all the voices, all the powers, all the fears that oppress us, depress us, and mess with us so we think and feel that our lives do not matter. But the cross reveals that our lives do matter to God: we are–through Jesus–justified or right with God through faith. We have obtained access to the mercy of God so that even in the sufferings of this life we have hope, and hope will not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Jesus and his proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of God would indeed mean Jesus is an ally of those who are crushed and burdened by life’s heavy loads and/or the cruelty of systems that fail to recognize the dignity of all people. When we say that God loves all people it is not meant to be a cliché easily forgotten, but a call for action so people see, receive, and know the love of God through the church, those who represent Jesus in the community. Hear our gospel text as Jesus looked out and saw the crowds coming to him. He didn’t complain about all the people and the demands they placed on his time. No, he saw they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Does not that text, written two thousand years ago by Matthew, describe our times today? News commentators say a word that describes our day is “anxiety”. People are dying by their own hand or by drug overdoses which are called “deaths by despair”. Jesus saw so many in need and may have felt overwhelmed himself as we feel overwhelmed with all the discouraging news we hear. Jesus said to the disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send our laborers into his harvest.”
Jesus then gave his disciples, whom the text called as well “apostles”: meaning those who are sent with the authority to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. Jesus told his disciples/apostles ‘cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast our demons.’ We might think that certainly does not apply to our times thinking there are not lepers around, there are hospitals for the sick, nobody believes in demons anymore, and how can anyone raise the dead? So I guess all the church can do is discuss this text as a historical curiosity and stay within confined comfort zones. But we still need to take this text seriously.
When a policeman put his knee on George Floyd his final words were begging for his life saying “I cannot breathe”. This has become a rallying cry for many on the streets and as one Civil Rights advocate has said it is ‘shorthand’ for many in the country who cannot breathe because of systems and policies that do not help the poor. The church is called to minister to those who feel they cannot breathe under the pressure of their problems. We know people who are sick and worried about healthcare. We may indeed know lepers, not literal lepers but people nevertheless who feel unclean and unwelcome in their communities. We may know people who are battling the demons of despair and hopelessness. We may know folks who feel condemned by God and dead in their sins. When we proclaim and live the good news of the kingdom of God, the healing mercy of God, we are allowing the Holy Spirit, the Breath of God, to help people breathe with hope. This is the hope of Jesus with them never to forsake or unfriend them. As the church we represent Jesus for one another in our communities.
Psalm 100, assigned for today, is a short prayer of praise celebrating that God is our shepherd and we are sheep of his pasture. The Lord is called good, meaning God’s love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness, God’s will of mercy and no-condemnation, will not change. The need is great, but thanks be to God Jesus walks with us, he is our shepherd, our leader, and our ally we depend on each day. Let us pray for God to use us to bring his compassion and hope for those in need. Know that Jesus is good, loving, and faithful and ever looks upon us with compassion.